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