22nd May – Nybster to John O’Groats

20190522 Looking north to Ness Head and Skirza Head
Looking north to Ness Head and Skirza Head

We woke to rain as anticipated, and with a poor forecast for the day.  I left Nybster at 8.05 passing Samuel’s Geo and a pig farm…

20190522 Samuels geo
Samuel’s geo

…before arriving at Bucholly Castle.  The castle is delicately balanced between two geos.

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Rounding Ness Head, I dropped down onto Freswick Beach, passing Freswick House on the way.

20190522 Freswick House
Freswick House

Once past the beach I was detoured up to a road before rejoining the trail at Skirza jetty.

20190522 Freswick Bay
Freswick Bay

Skirza Head at the end of the bay had a large guillemot colony, and they were very noisy.

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After two more geos I stopped for a break in an old quarry.  It was one of the few places where I could find any shelter from the wind.

Soon after leaving the quarry, the rain began again in earnest, and I was fortunate that it cleared as I approached the Stacks of Duncansby and Duncansby Head.  I met a lady on Orca watch as I came up to the stacks.  Apparently some had been seen off Helmsdale last week.

20190522 Stacks of Duncanby
The Stacks of Duncansby

I looked at the Geo of Sclaites as instructed by the guide – it looked similar to several others.

20190522 Geo of Scalaites
Geo of Scalaites

I made my way to the lighthouse car park, and sheltered behind an information board to eat lunch.

20190522 Duncansby lighthouse
Duncansby lighthouse

The route led me down to the Bay of Sannick, where locals were tidying up the beach.

20190522 Beach cleanup at the Bay of Sannick
Beach tidy at the Bay of Sannick

It was then just a question of going round the Ness of Duncansby and entering John O’Groats.  I arrived at 1.10.

20190522 John o'Groats through the rain
John o’Groats through the rain

The weather had taken a turn for the worse at Duncansby, and became what my mother-in-law would have called “lazy rain”: it doesn’t bother to go round but just goes straight through.  That being said, I have been incredibly blessed with good weather both last year and this year.  Rainy days have been few and far between, and the dry spells have made the trails much easier.  Few of the bogs mentioned in the trail guide actually gave me any problems, but you could see they would be very difficult in wet conditions.

Today was the highlight of the John O’Groats Trail with easy walking and superb scenery.  Tomorrow I will take to the roads, and with luck should reach journey’s end at Dunnet Head by early afternoon.

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17th May – Brora to Helmsdale

20190517 Brora harbour
Brora harbour

This was the first time that the sea was in sight for almost all of the day.  I left Brora at 8.35, and walked past the harbour and around the edge of the golf course.  At the end of the course, I entered fields adjacent to dunes where the path became indistinct.

20190517 Looking north towards Helmsdale
Looking north towards Helmsdale

Crossing the coastal fence, I walked on and almost stepped on an adder basking in the sun. Thankfully he was more alert than me, and moved to a new position.  I reached for my phone to take a photo, but he got bored and slid between the boulders.  I wasn’t about to put my hand down the hole to get him to pose again.  Moving on, an Eider Duck erupted from the undergrowth, exposing her nest and eggs.

20190517 Eider duck eggs
Eider duck nest

The next excitement came on fording the Loth Burn.  The stones were partially underwater, and slippery.  Wet socks ensued.

20190517 Hard walking on the boulder beach
Hard walking on the boulder beach

After walking through a caravan park and passing a nudist beach, the path is sandwiched between the railway and the sea.  (Geographers would recognise it as being on a rather fine wave-cut platform.)  For the best part of an hour you walk through knee high tussocks of grass, being forced onto the boulder-strewn beach every so often.  It was a relief when I could cross the railway and ascend to the pretty village of Portgower.

20190517 The headland before Helmsdale
The headland before Helmsdale

After a quick lunch, I crossed the Garbh Allt, marvelling at its deep gorge, and Helmsdale soon came into view.

20190517 Helmsdale harbour
Helmsdale harbour

I reached the town at 2.35, found the village shop, and bought dinner and breakfast for tomorrow.  The hostel is excellent with en-suite facilities, a comfortable lounge and big kitchen.  Definitely the best hostel I have used this trip.  It is disappointing that a charming Dutch lady is the only other person staying here.

20190517 Looking up Helmsdale from the river bridge
The view up Helmsdale from the river bridge

It looks as if the weather is finally deteriorating tomorrow, which is a shame as I am combining two sections of the trail before meeting Alan at Dunbeath.  I am promised lots of ascent and descent, combined with wet ground and wild vegetation.  Sounds like it could be fun.

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Sights along the trail

  • stone sculpture
  • one of many WW2 defences on the trail
  • cormorants – or shags?

16th May – Golspie to Brora

20190516 Dunrobin castle 2
Dunrobin Castle

Today has been a semi rest day.  I left my B&B and stayed at Golspie waiting for the Rock Shop to open at 10.00.  Last night I spied a rather attractive stone-carved bear in their shop window.  I really like Inuit carving but cannot justify the prices they command.  The bear was in my price range, and in the end I bought it and arranged that we would pick it up on our way to Inverness next week.

20190516 Looking back at the bridge at Golspie
Looking back at the bridge at Golspie

I left Golspie around 11.00 and made my way to Dunrobin Castle.  I had mixed feelings about whether to stop or not, for reasons I will explain later, but in the end I decided to break my journey there.

20190516 Dunrobin castle from the path
Dunrobin castle viewed from the trail

The house and grounds are magnificent, and my visit coincided with a falconry display which was most informative.  The falconer flew three birds, the last of which was a peregrine.  These birds stoop at over 200 miles an hour, and when they pull out of their dive they pull 24g.  This is remarkable when you consider that a fighter pilot in a special suit passes out at 9g.

20190516 Falconry at Dunrobin castle
Falconer with peregrine falcon

The reason I was hesitant about visiting Dunrobin was that I knew something of the darker side of the history of the house.  This is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Sutherland.  The first Duke and Duchess were responsible for some of the worst excesses of the Highland Clearances.  Whilst they spent much of their time socialising in London, their factors were busy evicting their tenants to make room for black faced sheep, which were more profitable.  Initially tenants were moved to poor land at the coast, to become fishermen, and when that proved unsustainable they were encouraged to emigrate so as not to be a burden on the landowner.  The profits from this paid for the house.  ‘Done Robbing’ might be a better name.  I was put to shame by a group of Canadians from Nova Scotia, who I met at dinner this evening.  They were visiting the original homes of their Scottish ancestors and refused to visit the castle, as they did not want to be supporting the Sutherlands in any way.

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On a happier note, the route to Brora was a delight.  Bluebell-covered woodland led to open pasture near the sea.

20190516 Bluebells on the route to Brora
Bluebell time

I passed the remains of Carn Liath Broch…

20190516 Carn Liath broch
Carn Liath Broch

…before passing under the first cliffs on the walk.

20190516 The first cliffs on the John O’Groats Trail
Cliffs add interest

During the next section, I saw several seals sunning themselves on the rocks.  Like my father, I love the sea.  There’s always something interesting happening, and it was lovely to walk along being serenaded by the seals and a pair of ravens.

20190516 Seals basking on rocks near Brora
Basking seals

I reached Brora at 3.15.  The town seems to have an active fishing fleet judging by the lobster pots at the harbour.  It also has a Salt Street, reflecting the importance of salt pans to the town.  The Duke of Sutherland opened a coal mine in the town to provide employment for the population.

20190516 Approaching Brora
Approaching Brora

Overall a very pleasant day, and the scenery will only improve from here.  One slightly worrying point is that two walkers told me today that around Berriedale the route is almost impassable – but we will just have to see when I get there.

15th May – Dornoch to Golspie

20190515 Dornoch cathedral
Dornoch cathedral

Dornoch turned out to be a charming little town.  I left the hotel at 8.10 and walked down past the Market Cross and Cathedral before regaining the trail.

20190515 Dornoch market cross
The ancient market cross

At last I had some coastal walking, first beside the Dornoch Golf Course, and then onto a disused railway track to the little village of Embo.  From there I followed the railway once again to reach Loch Fleet.

20190515 Path beside Dornoch golf course
Path beside Dornoch golf course

The walk around Loch Fleet was very pleasant, even if it was on a road.  I passed Skelbo Castle, and then had a nature-packed few miles.

20190515 Skelbo castle
Skelbo Castle

A stoat ran across the road a few metres in front of me, and then a seal surfaced on the loch.  As the tide was in there were few waders around, but the loch was full of Eider Duck, and hearing their mewing call was a delight.

20190515 Great place to stop for a break
Great place to stop for a break

 

I delayed walking along the A9 for as long as possible by using a woodland path, but was forced onto it at the causeway of The Mound in order to cross Loch Fleet.

20190515 Mountains and mist over loch fleet
Mountains and mist above Loch Fleet

From the A9 a short section in a wood led to the railway line, which I followed across fields.  Inevitably I had to cross one field of cows, calves and a large bull.  Luckily they were all quite nervous, and the bull hid behind the cows. The farmer’s sign saying “Cattle in field.  Enter at your own risk” was not very helpful when you really have no alternative.

20190515 Highland cow
Benevolent Highland cow

After a short section of road and a beautiful wood, I returned to the coast and another golf course.  Golspie was now in sight, and I arrived at the town at 2.50.

20190515 Approaching Golspie
Approaching Golspie

I managed to get some tea at a cafe, but eating tonight will be problematic.  There is very little choice, so it will probably be fish and chips.

I have a very short day tomorrow – only 10km or 6.5 miles. As I will be passing Dunrobin Castle, I am going to spend some time there before going on to Brora.

When I left Dornoch, there was a trail sign saying John O’Groats 162km.  As today’s walk was 22km, which is the same distance between John O’Groats and Dunnet Head, tomorrow I shall be less than 100 miles from the end of my trip.

20190515 Sea mist on the road around loch fleet
Sea mist on the road around Loch Fleet

 

23rd April – Tyndrum to Inveroran

20190423 Tricky and Alison on the path to the Bridge of Orchy
Tricky and Alison on the path to the Bridge of Orchy

As I was in the hostel, I had bought some breakfast.  I was able to have a relaxed meal, as Tricky and Alison were traveling from the east coast and would not arrive before 10.00.

I am feeling a little guilty that my large rucksack went into the car, and I only carried a day sack.  This seemed sensible given the problem with my shin, and made the walk much easier.

20190423 Beinn Dorain 1076m
Beinn Dorain (1076m)

The weather was good again, and we set off along the valley with wonderful views of Beinn Dorain.  As we were busy chatting the walk to Bridge of Orchy passed quickly and we arrived just before 1.00pm.

20190423 At the Bridge of Orchy
Neil at Bridge of Orchy

Tricky caught the train back to Tyndrum while Alison and I went to the hotel for some lunch.  Half an hour or so later Tricky returned, and he and I walked on to Inveroran, while Alison moved the car.

20190423 Tricky on the path to Inveroran
Tricky on the path to Inveroran, with Loch Tulla in the distance

The river at the Bridge of Orchy was very low – and long may that continue.  The walk through a plantation rose gently over a ridge, and soon Loch Tulla and Inveroran were in sight.

20190423 Loch Tulla
Loch Tulla

We had made good time, as Alison was just leaving the hotel to walk up and meet us, when we arrived around 3.30.

20190423 Inveroran Hotel
Inveroran Hotel

After tea and cake, Tricky and Alison set off to return home.  We had all enjoyed the day, and I am very grateful that they took the trouble to travel so far to support me, as well as for lunch.

20190423 Deer
How could you?

The hotel was friendly and comfortable, and I enjoyed venison for dinner.  When I went out for a post-dinner walk I am sure that the deer I passed gave me disapproving looks.

It was a great pleasure to hear a cuckoo for the first time this year and also to see the swallows had returned at the Bridge of Orchy.  Interestingly, at Inveroran I only saw house martins.  Perhaps the birds have come to an arrangement over territory.

20190423 More Deer
Less disapproving deer

18th April – Falkirk to Lennoxtown

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The Forth & Clyde canal goes on… and on…

Today has been hard – and it should have been easy.  Physically it should probably have been the easiest terrain of the whole trip: I doubt that I have climbed as much as 50m.  The problem was psychological.  This was the third day walking along the canal.  Nothing really happens.  The scenery is largely farmland, there are very few locks and no canal traffic.  In summary, it is boring, especially if you are on your own.

Anyway, I left at 7.45 and got onto the canal at 8.30.  Six hours and around 16 miles later I reached Kirkintilloch and left the canal behind.  I almost forgot to mention that I switched from the Union Canal to the Forth and Clyde Canal at the Falkirk Wheel, used to lift barges between the two waterways.  As with the Kelpies, this is a must-visit attraction.  Unfortunately nothing was moving on the canal so I did not see it working.

20190418 Falkirk Wheel 1
The Falkirk Wheel

The Forth and Clyde Canal does not seem to get much use.  Nothing was happening at the marina near Kilsyth, despite the fine weather.

20190418 Marina near Kilsyth
Marina near Kilsyth
20190418 Heron
Depressed heron

The section across Dullarur Bog was almost my nemesis.  Admittedly it is interesting from an industrial engineering point of view: the embankment had to be built up 16m and allowed to settle before construction of the canal could take place.  Nevertheless after 6k of nearly arrow-straight walking it had lost its appeal. Even the heron walking down the path with me seemed to be suffering from depression.

At long last I arrived at Kirkintilloch, and said goodbye to the canals until after Fort William.

20190418 The end of the canal path
The end of the canal path

It was almost out of the frying-pan into the fire, as the next 5k was on a straight abandoned railway.

20190418 The Strathblane Railway Walkway
The Strathblane Railway Walkway

I hurried on to Milton of Campsie’s Old Station where I stopped at a very fine bench.  I was minding my own business when I was asked to film and direct an advert for an upcoming event in the village.  I think they might have got the wrong Neil Jordan!

Given all that had happened – or not – during the day, it was with some relief that I arrived at Lennoxtown at 3.45.

I have covered over 60 miles in the last 3 days, around 45 miles of which has been beside the canals.  The tarmac surface is hard on the legs, and I am heartily thankful that after tomorrow I will get back onto more normal terrain.

4th April – Youlgreave to Hathersage

20190404 Chatsworth house
Today’s highlight – Chatsworth

Today has been one of ups and downs.  The weather forecast for the afternoon was very poor, so naturally I could not get breakfast before 8.30 and the shop in the village was closed for repairs.

20190404 River Lathkill
The River Lathkill

I left Youlgreave at 9.10 and immediately dropped down into Lathkill Dale, crossing the river via a packhorse bridge.  I then climbed over the ridge to walk down into the valley of the River Wye at Haddon Hall.  This was the home of William Peverel, the illegitimate son of William the Conquerer.

20190404 Haddon Hall
Haddon Hall, veiled in mist

The route circled around the grounds of Haddon Hall, passing some very impressive cows, before climbing over another ridge and descending into the Derwent Valley near Chatsworth.

20190404 Cows with big horns
Cows with big horns, where I like to see them – in the next field!

The views of Chatsworth were magnificent and I enjoyed the walk through the Deer Park and the extensive grounds.

20190404 Chatsworth house from the deerpark
Chatsworth viewed from the deerpark

Leaving Chatsworth the weather started to deteriorate so I stopped to don wet weather gear.  Suitably clad I continued to Baslow where I had a coffee and bought some lunch.

At Baslow I reviewed my options.  The guidebook route was up over the gritstone edges of Baslow, Curbar and Froggatt. I know these well from climbing trips and a recent visit. Given the poor forecast it seemed wiser to take a low level route and so I choose the Derwent Heritage Way, part of which I knew from a recent MAC trip. This would also be faster.

At 2.00 I stopped near Froggatt village for lunch and it started to rain in earnest. As I watched Froggatt Edge disappear into the gloom I was pleased with my decision.

Walking beside the River Derwent was enjoyable despite the rain, and I think that I saw two mergansers near Curbar.  Leaving the Derwent I climbed up to Hathersage arriving around 3.30.  As there are plenty of gear shops I was able to replace my lost hat on the way to my accommodation.

20190404 Red deer at Chatsworth
Red deer at Chatsworth

I am overjoyed to be back in Derbyshire and especially in the Peak Park.  The paths are well-signed and tend to exist on the ground, which is more than can be said for those in Shropshire and Staffordshire.

Tomorrow my friend Carl is joining me for a couple of days, which will be great.  I am also taking a semi-rest day and only have around 10k to walk.  In the past week I have covered around 190k, about 20% of the total to Dunnet Head. Over the next few days the distances are less but there will be more hills.  Thankfully the weather looks better for tomorrow.