Day 69 – The Final Day

Wick to John o’Groats – 17.7 miles (1,079.5 total)

All set for the last day

When I started planning this whole crazy venture, the thought of how I would feel on the last day may have crossed my mind, but only fleetingly. Regular followers well know that I was never confident enough to look that far ahead. The next day was all that mattered, while the one just finished became a few paragraphs and photos on a blog which, at best, would be of interest to a very limited number of readers. I intend to detail my reflections on the whole project once I have time to think and write about it. My inventory – mainly the contents of the pack that I carried – is another important resource for anyone considering tackling a long-distance walk themselves. Available time to provide this, while I was actually walking, couldn’t be found. It is also important to relate the whole planning process which started with an idea and developed over time into today, Day 69, and my last leg of LEJOG 2018. I promise I will provide these before too long. Meanwhile, back to my ultimate walking day.

Wick
Wick Harbour

Pete, Eddie and myself were all staying at different B&Bs in Wick. Because Eddie had the car, I had the luxury of walking with a relatively light daypack rather than my heavier backpack. Pete wasn’t sure if he would accompany us for the complete 17 mile walk. He had the bus times to hand which gave him the option of opting out at any stage. In the event, he did finish the walk with me, and I think he well-deserved to be there at the end… as too did Eddie.

Eddie and Pete, my walking companions for the final leg
Boots laced, hi-vis jacket zipped and GPS in hand… for the last time

We met at 9.15am, deposited our heavier bags in the boot of the car, and set off for John o’Groats. It would have been difficult to get lost today because the route was main road, the A99, from first step to last. There was a generous length of pavement which offered us safe walking out of town, past the industrial estate, then along a stretch of country road, before it came to an end. ‘ Wick John o’Groats Airport ’ was on our right-hand side as we followed the A99 away from the buildings. I don’t know how busy it normally is but we saw a couple of planes land during our brief brush with it. Our road was always very close to the coast, curving round the large body of water called Sinclair’s Bay. Someone told us that it is very popular with surfers, although it looked calm and unthreatening from our vantage point.

Leaving Wick

We walked through Ackergill then the hamlet of Reiss, before crossing the River Wester at the modern ‘ Bridge of Wester ’. The original stone bridge still remains as a solid structure having now become what looks like a farm track.

River Wester
Wester Bridge

The road then climbed a little to the compact village of Keiss, which was big enough to have a pedestrian crossing, complete with amber warning lights, on its main road. Pete wanted to stop and change his walking boots for shoes so I was hoping to find a cafe or park bench in the village to let us stop for a break. Absolutely nothing of any help was there. As we were passing the last house, with a B&B sign in the window, a man was standing on the pavement with a mug of tea in his hand, talking to somebody out-of-sight in the doorway. He started talking to us as we reached him, and, on discovering that we were walking Lands End to John o’Groats he offered us a mug of tea and a seat. The sun was breaking through the clouds as he and his wife brought us out 3 lovely mugs of tea while we sat and chatted in their garden… with Pete grabbing the opportunity to change his footwear. There was never any question of payment for the hospitality and we would never have insulted them by offering. For me, it shows that, even in this modern world, you can come across generosity when you’re least expecting it. To Annette and Frankie, thank you very much for sharing some time with strangers, it was one of the highlights of my walk. Poor Annette had to be dragged back outside for some photos before we left.

Myself and Eddie either side of Annette and Frankie

http://a1castleviewskeiss.com/

After Keiss we reached Nybster, where we passed an interesting war memorial which consisted of 2 small entrance columns to a community building car park. The wording was a bit faded but seemed to commemorate various famous battles, both land and sea, from the 1914-1918 War.

Nybster 1
Nybster 2

Auckengill was next but it was more a spread of outlying cottages than a village. The land was becoming noticeably bleaker at Hill of Harley, being only moss with little potential for any possible farming use. We had a walk uphill past the edge of Freswick, our last collection of houses before John o’Groats. The final climb of LEJOG took us over Warth Hill, which was lovely on a nice sunny day like today, but must be bleak in poor weather. The views on the other side were well worth the walk: down below us were the scattered dwellings of Duncansby and then John o’Groats, with the various Islands of Orkney almost within touching distance across the Pentland Firth.

Freswick
Looking out to the Pentland Firth
Oh, John’s Goats?

By this point I had started getting texts on my phone as friends realised that I must be near the finish. I know this will sound really corny, but, when I saw the road sign before entering John o’Groats I must admit to having a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye at the realisation that this was the last act of many years of thought and 6 solid months of planning and walking. Until that moment it hadn’t occurred to me that I might get emotional. We still had a mile to go before arriving at the marker signpost. The sun was out, we’d had another dry, warm day, visibility was excellent and the three of us had walked 17 miles of road – my weather luck had been with me to the end.

End of the road

Eddie had driven 6 hours yesterday in the car, to do a road walk today, then drive the return trip tomorrow, giving both Pete and myself a lift home. Pete had joined me for 3 separate weeks of walking and wanted to be there at the end. The car park at the famous signpost was rather busy with vehicles, motorbikes and bicycles. Unlike Lands End it didn’t resemble a street in an American Mall – for that I am eternally grateful, please don’t be tempted to change that! My good friend, Bill, phoned me as I was nearing the sign – he’d kept in regular touch all the way.

Mission accomplished! 1,079.5 miles walked; LEJOG 2018 completed!

We got fed up waiting for the bikers to leave the sign so we could get our photos, so we pushed in and asked one of them to take the snaps… and a good job he made of it. Then off to our hotel for a celebration drink. Well, okay, maybe two. I phoned Elizabeth, who was grateful that I’d made it in one piece – what a support she’s been.

Thanks to everyone for your texts, messages, e-mails and phone calls. Robin phoned me at the finish, from Toronto, just like he promised he would.

The help and support of friends and family – and the incredibly brilliant weather – made this whole adventure a great deal easier than I could ever have hoped for. I have loved the experience and have proved that age is no barrier to ambition; you don’t have to walk 1,000 miles, simply walk 4 or 5, but do it regularly… not only will you feel fitter but you’ll meet people as well.

Day 68

Dunbeath to Wick – 20.5 miles (1,061.8 total)

Today was one that preyed on the back of my mind from the beginning. Yes, it was the second last scheduled day, which should have been a reason for relaxation, but, it was a long walk to programme in near the end. The logistics dictated that it had to be done so I hoped that my fitness would carry me through.

Pete was staying at a different B&B from me. We met at 9am for a sensible start. For once there was a dampness in the air. It wasn’t quite rain, it was low cloud/mist. Although it wasn’t annoying enough to require me to put on my jacket, it did leave everything covered in a film of wetness. The major problem with this was that all the vegetation was correspondingly wet. My route today was main road, the A9 then the A99, so constantly having to avoid traffic meant jumping on to the grass verge then back to the road and so on, all walk long. With the verge being so wet, I was soaking virtually from the start. The bottom of my walking trousers got wet, my boots got wet and, much more importantly, my socks got wet. For the first time on my walk I was walking in wet socks for the whole day. Of course, it would happen on a long day.

Road walking

Pete’s walking boots were hurting him so he decided to walk in ordinary shoes only as far as Lybster. Because of the low cloud we had no views for the first hour or so. At Latheron the A9 turns and goes to Thurso. From there until John o’Groats my route was the A99. After 6.5 miles we reached Lybster and by then the cloud had lifted. I left Pete at Quatre Bras (no mistake, that’s its name), and continued alone for the rest of the day.

A99 – the final road to John o’Groats
A99 split at Latheron
The mist looking out to sea

The road stayed quite close to the coast as I passed through Overton, Mid Clyth, Ulbster then Thrumster. The landscape didn’t vary much as I tramped the miles, jumping from verge to road and back again. The grass dried up by around midday, as did my trousers… but, sadly, not my socks! Trees were few and far between, as I had expected, which offered no variety to the surroundings of houses and fields. As the weather cleared up I had good views out to sea, making me aware of the many oil and gas platforms located offshore.

Clearing up

I was walking at a comfortable pace of over 3 miles an hour so managed to reach Wick before 3.30pm. Pete was already in town and Eddie, after his long drive from home, made contact as well. We met up for something to eat and drink before them both joining me tomorrow for my final leg, Day 69 of 69. We walk from Wick to John o’Groats. I can’t believe I’ve nearly finished my walk. Where have the last 68 days gone?

Destination number 68 reached… only 1 to go!
Wick Harbour
The harbour at night

Day 67

Helmsdale to Dunbeath – 15.5 miles (1,041.3 total)

Helmsdale was a perplexing place. It’s a lovely little village with everything the walker/cyclist/tourist could ask for but it wasn’t busy. It has a harbour, a really good pub, a couple of hotels, a convenience store, a chip shop, restaurants, a railway station, a post office, The Emigrants Statue… and those are just the features and facilities that I noticed! But, it didn’t feel as busy as it deserved to be. We stayed in a brilliant, very reasonably-priced hotel/guest house, too. Maybe it was simply a quiet Friday night in June? If Helmsdale was on the west coast rather than the east then you wouldn’t be able to move for tourists. I would definitely like to visit it again, for longer next time.

Starting off
Looking back at Helmsdale

Pete is suffering with a painful big toe – he blames his new boots – so he chose not to walk at all today. I set out just after 9am for my road walk to Dunbeath. The sky was thick with cloud, the tops of the hills were covered in mist and it was still warm. I had a long, slow climb, taking 3.5 miles to reach 750ft from virtually sea-level. The going was easy, almost effortless yet my shirt was soaking with sweat in no time.

Morning mist in the hills

Thankfully, the A9 was a lot quieter today. There were fewer lorries and vans on the road – I assume because it was the weekend – and there were plenty of gaps between vehicles. On the way I looked back to some nice views of Helmsdale as the road gained height. Once my highest point was reached the road mainly followed the contours of the hills to work its way along the coast. I negotiated an impressive hairpin bend at Ord of Caithness. Later, I passed a monument to William Welch, a popular tramp who perished in a snow storm in 1878.

Ord of Caithness
Memorial to William Welch

Before too long my stay in Sutherland came to an end when I entered my final County of the walk, Caithness. What a journey it has been: from Avon to Ayrshire, from Somerset to Sutherland, from Cornwall to Caithness, and many more in between.

At Creagan Mor I saw a sign for the abandoned village of Badbea. It was settled by families who had been evicted in The Clearances, but provided a meagre living for the inhabitants. The village was slightly off route for me so I passed up the opportunity to pay a visit, although I dearly would have liked to. The ruined reminder of ‘ man’s inhumanity to man ’ would have dampened my spirit, in any case.

The abandoned village of Badbea

Straight after Badbea I chanced upon a monument in a field to The Grey Hen’s Well. How it got its name and why it was worthy of a memorial plaque in 1934 is beyond me! The road then descended rapidly as I arrived at the village of Berriedale. The latest in a long line of ostentatious war memorials greeted me at the turn. It was a beautiful structure, but, then again, every one I’ve seen in Sutherland and Caithness has been outstanding – Helmsdale’s is a clock tower. As I looked at the names, it struck me that privilege still prevailed a hundred years ago because the gentry were given pride of place at the top of the list. Is it any different today? Boy, I was really in a jovial mood after that. I consoled myself by singing a couple of Eric Bogle’s anti-war songs out loud, verse by verse, as I walked up the hill to continue on my way. The drivers and passengers in passing cars must have thought I was nuts… and who am I to argue?

The Grey Hen’s Well
The village of Berriedale
Berriedale War Memorial

A very loud ‘ Good morning ’ startled me, because there was no traffic on the road. I turned round to see a leisure cyclist glide by me on the other side of the road with a cheerful grin on his face. Ten minutes later a passing blue van peeped his horn, waving animatedly at me as he went by. I apologise if it was somebody I should have recognised, but the van meant nothing to me.

Sea view

After Beinn nan Coireag the countryside started to flatten out, giving me distant views in all directions. I was keeping up a good pace, which cheered me up somewhat, as I have a long road walk tomorrow.

Looking North

Again, the road descended as I approached my destination, the coastal village of Dunbeath. I arrived there at 2.15pm, which was a little early for my B&B, so I stopped for a pint of real ale at the Bay Owl. A short time later, Pete joined me, having taken the bus from Helmsdale.

The village of Dunbeath from above

Despite what I’ve written here I was in good spirits all day. My walk along the A9, far from being a ghastly experience, was a very enjoyable and satisfying day’s entertainment. The sun didn’t appear in the afternoon, as forecast, and… yes, it stayed dry all day.

Wick tomorrow, then John o’Groats

Day 66

Brora to Helmsdale – 12.3 miles (1,025.8 total)

I crossed the bridge over the River Brora to meet Pete for a 10am start. We immediately headed back towards the coast via the other side of the river to the golf course. Like yesterday at Dornoch, we followed a path along the length of the links, only this time it was on the coastal side of the course. We met and had a good blether with a woman from Solihull, who was walking her 2 dogs. Her motorhome was berthed at the caravan park nearby. From observation, walking the West Highland Way and the Great Glen Way, and navigating the A9, these motorhomes have taken over from caravans as the touring vehicles of choice. They appear to be everywhere and people are telling us that they are clogging up the narrow roads on the Scottish Islands… as well as the mainland! But it does seem to be a cost-effective and flexible way to see this beautiful country that is Scotland.

Brora war memorial
Brora harbour

At the far end of the golf course my plotted route was back to A9 roadwalking. However, there was still some path alongside the beach, so we decided to take a chance and see how far we could go before being forced on to the road. We persevered with a mixture of path, sand, shingle and rocks before finally admitting defeat at Kintradwell. The railway line was between us and the road so I had to phone the signalman to get clearance to cross the tracks. Then it was a steep farm path to join the A9.

Pete, happy as a sandboy!
My footprints in the sand

The remainder of our walk to Helmsdale was the A9. Rarely enjoying anything more than the narrowest of verges it was an unrelenting trudge against the flow of traffic. You have to be ever vigilant, ready to step between road and uneven verge as the cars, motorcycles, trucks and articulated lorries hurtle past at up to 60mph. There is no opportunity to enjoy the changing coastal vista as you are concentrating full-time on the oncoming traffic… and I’ve got 3 more days of this to look forward to.

Our road ahead

We passed a monument, on the other side of the road, at the place where the last wolf in Sutherland was killed around 1700. Coming into Helmsdale we also passed a large modern statue commemorating the Highland Clearances – when many people were evicted from their homes, most notoriously by the Duke of Sutherland, to make way for sheep. Helmsdale is actually a product of the Clearances, being constructed to house some of those evicted. The Strath of Kildonan, near Helmsdale suffered severe depopulation, and many of those evicted decided to emigrate. It was emigrants from Kildonan who founded the city of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada.

The last wolf
The Emigrants

I spotted 3 oil rigs out at sea, the first I’ve seen other than those moored at Invergordon. Pete walked the whole 12 miles with me today. The weather was cloudy in the morning getting sunny and pretty warm in the afternoon. Today was my eleventh – and last – Friday of the walk. I can still vividly recall my first Friday, walking with Christopher into a sunny and warm Truro all those weeks ago.

Helmsdale harbour

Day 65

Dornoch to Brora – 18.8 miles (1,013.5 total)

Today was a day of contrasting emotions. The morning was a delightful walk, along the coast and north to Loch Fleet, which is a National Nature Reserve; this was followed by an uncomfortable walk along the A9 to Golspie, which included a questionable rural diversion; the finale was another spectacular section along the coast before rejoining the A9 for the last mile and a half into Brora.

The morning start

Pete met up with me at 9.15am and we immediately took a path along the edge of the golf course. The Royal Dornoch Golf Course is apparently very famous, very popular and very expensive to play on. As a walker, I am always wary of golf courses. Many paths and rights of way are close to playing areas. I am ever conscious that I may inadvertently trespass on to private areas, or sneeze at the wrong time and cause upset by default. There is also the quite obvious risk of being struck by a golf ball… but that hasn’t happened yet. Anyhow, this morning’s path was well-defined and safely sheltered by tall gorse bushes. We soon left the golf course with its hazards, both real and imaginary, behind, and reached the quaintly-named village of Embo.

Royal Dornoch Golf Course

Mostly following the course of the old railway we worked our way round into the estuary that is Loch Fleet. On the way we startled a very young fawn which ran away before I could even think about taking out my camera. Some highland cattle were a couple of fields further on, very docile but with horns to match their great bulk. The path led to a country road and then a viewing area with a bench, which offered us the opportunity for a seat and a drink of water. It was low tide in the loch so we saw masses of common seals stretching themselves on the exposed sandbanks, with lots of birds to keep them company.

Seals in Loch Fleet

At the head of Loch Fleet we reached The Mound to join the A9 just before the bridge. My plotted route stayed on the A9 all the way to Golspie. However, I spotted a path leading into Creag Bheag woods signposted as part of the John o’Groats Trail. Taking it seemed a good decision at first, but soon the path ran out and we found ourselves hemmed in between the railway and fields with locked gates. Cutting our losses, we took a track back to the dreaded A9. This was a real low point because it was very busy and offered little verge to walk on. Luckily we both had our Hi-Vis waistcoats on, so at least the traffic could see us as the cars and trucks whizzed by at 60mph. Pete had again decided on a curtailed day and planned to catch the bus in Golspie. I joined him for a pint before pressing on.

Afternoon walk

My afternoon route took me right along the coast to just short of Brora. It was a genuinely enjoyable walk and I hardly met a soul. As always, the sun was shining and the sky was blue. The easterly wind was blowing quite strongly, however, keeping me cool. I suspect it will be my constant companion until the finish. Not long after leaving Golspie, I passed Dunrobin Castle, which looked more like a French Chateau than a Scottish Castle. Many varieties of seabird were quite at home on this secluded part of the coastline. I cut back inland again at Sputie, where I knew I could cross under the railway line to once again follow the A9 in to Brora, passing the football ground of Brora Rangers before reaching my hotel.

Dunrobin Castle

Dudgeon Park, home of Scottish Highland League club Brora Rangers F. C.

An interesting postscript to my day was meeting a fellow walker doing LEJOG. Pete came round to the hotel to meet me once I’d had a shower. While having a drink outside in the sun he met Jules Forth accompanied by her son, Angus, who flew over from Australia, unannounced, to walk with her for a week. Pete called me down and the four of us had a wonderful half hour comparing notes and experiences. Jules started her walk on March 1st, early enough to catch the late-winter snowfall in Cornwall and Devon. It was quite a treat to meet a fellow walker doing LEJOG at exactly the same time as myself. We could have talked for hours but their booked taxi arrived to ferry them to their accommodation. It’s amazing that we only meet by chance now after both being on the road for so long. She is currently on Day 85 (I think) and plans to finish on Tuesday, 12th June – the day after me. Jules’ blog is: http://www.julesforth.com/walkingtheblackdog

Angus and Jules

Today saw me pass the 1,000 mile mark. That’s a lot of steps!

Day 64

Alness to Dornoch – 21.8 miles (994.7 total)

Our route out of Alness, like the previous 2 days, was the relatively easy-to-follow NCR1. We set off at 9am to Alness town centre then headed due north to leave the houses behind. Quite quickly we turned sharp right on a country road to walk in an easterly direction for the rest of the morning. Our way was level and straight for the most part. The giant oil rigs moored at Invergordon were off to our right as we made our way along.

Our morning walk

Sizeable forested areas on both sides of the road sheltered us from the cooling breeze. We passed Newmore Wood, Badachonacher Moss, Tullich Wood, Scotsburn Wood, The Wilderness, Marybank Wood… the list goes on. The occasional car and van and the occasional cyclist kept us on our toes.

A link with the John o’Groats Trail

13.5 miles later, after passing through Glen Aldie, we arrived in the town of Tain. The constant pounding of feet on road was tiring for Pete so he opted to finish for the day at Tain and catch the bus to our destination at Dornoch. Need I mention that the weather was sunny and hot – cooler at times, when we caught the easterly breeze?

The town and royal burgh of Tain

Tain was bigger than we both expected but had a charming village feel to it. I joined Pete for a seat and a pint before setting off on my own for the rest of the walk. Leaving Tain, I now joined the main road north, the A9. For the first time there were no separate cycle path/walkways shadowing the road. My path was along the grass verge or narrow gravelled area next to the road itself. This was not fun… but I suppose I am just going to have to get used to it. I walked through Glen Morangie and, of course, the entrance to the eponymous whisky distillery.

Glen Morangie

My route ahead, the Dornoch Firth Bridge, was visible from a long way off. The first road sign with John o’Groats on it lifted my spirits a little. When I eventually started to cross the bridge the breeze turned into a strong wind trying to push me off the tiny pavement on to the road. On reaching the other side of the firth I discovered I had left Ross and Cromarty and was now in the County of Sutherland. I spotted a path shortcut through a field and a couple of gates that allowed me to leave the A9 and join a long, straight country road which took me all the way to Dornoch.

My walking route at the side of the A9
Where I’m headed
The Dornoch Firth Bridge
View to the east from the bridge

By the time I had walked past the cathedral and town centre to reach my B&B, I had walked over 21 miles. It was also 5pm which is one of my later finishes. After a cup of tea and a shower I met Pete, who was staying at a different hotel, for a pint and something to eat. I do feel tired tonight.

Day 63

Dingwall to Alness – 10.4 miles (972.9 total)

Today ended up a really short day to Alness and tomorrow is going to be a really long day to Dornoch. I could have done with a more even split but the availability of accommodation and services was important when planning this. On a positive note, both days look like having excellent weather for walking.

Sleepy Dingwall

Dingwall seemed smaller than I expected. That might be because I entered it near the Cromarty Firth side and possibly didn’t have occasion to go into the main body of the town. I can’t say for certain. This morning I first crossed the river, then the railway line, then the A862 main road before heading uphill passing some nice houses to reach a country road. Turning right on to this road provided me with the bulk of today’s walk. Like yesterday I was following National Cycle Route 1. The road was a good deal busier than I would have liked. I had taken the precaution of wearing my Hi-Vis waistcoat and was pleased at having made the right decision. The slight climb gave me some wide views of the Cromarty Firth with the unmistakable Cromarty Road Bridge, carrying the A9, getting ever closer as I progressed.

The Cromarty Bridge in the distance

Blue sky and sunshine were once again the order of the day. A pleasant breeze kept the temperature in the high teens – so much better for walking than last week’s humidity and hot weather.

After 6.5 miles I reached Evanton and sat down on a bench at the war memorial for a break and a drink. My route now joined the B817 which offered a dedicated cycle/walking path for the rest of the way to Alness. I caught a glimpse, in the distance, of a number of oil-rigs berthed at Invergordon.

Good advice!

Of course, I arrived far too early to check into my B&B, so I wandered past it and enjoyed a leisurely stroll along the main street in Alness. Having some crisps and cheese left over from yesterday, I sat on a bench in the town centre to enjoy a walker’s lunch while watching the world go by.

Pete arrived as planned at the B&B to accompany me for the remainder of the walk. Tomorrow, as I said, is a long walk to Dornoch. On the plus side, I am looking forward to my last big bridge crossing of LEJOG, the Dornoch Bridge.