18th May – Helmsdale to Dunbeath

20190518 Helmsdale harbour
Helmsdale harbour

Today lived up to its billing as the toughest section of the John O’Groats Trail not helped by fog and light rain.

I left the hostel at 7.50, and walked down to the harbour and then along a beach path before the real work of the day began.

20190518 The view back towards Helmsdale
Looking back towards Helmsdale

I started to climb up onto the ridge in gorse, heather and bracken following bearings as the path was very intermittent.  This set the the scene for the rest of the day.  It started to rain when I arrived at an old lookout station, and I took advantage of being able to don wet weather gear in the dry.

20190518 The Ord of Caithness
The Ord of Caithness

I crossed the Ord Burn and the Ord of Caithness, and disturbed a herd of deer.

20190518 Deer above the trail
Deer above the trail

After flogging across some heather moor, following the Allt a Bhurg Burn, I passed another broch and arrived above the Ousdale Burn.

20190518 The Broch above Ousdale Burn
The Broch above Ousdale Burn

Nothing in the guidebook suggested a descent to the Burn being the equivalent of going down the North Face of the Eiger.  The top set of wooden steps I descended facing inwards, as they were so steep.

20190518 Looking down on Ousdale Burn
Looking down on Ousdale Burn

I stopped at Badbea, a crofting community for victims of the clearances.  I am sure it made sense to someone to move farmers, who were being encouraged to go herring fishing, to a village on a steep slope above cliffs 130m above the sea.  Unsurprisingly the village was quickly abandoned.

20190518 Taking a break at an abandoned Croft in Badbea
Lunch stop at abandoned croft at Badbea

From Badbea there was more lush vegetation before I came down to Berriedale where I arrived at 1.00 with another 6.5 miles to go. I had been getting very low on energy, so stopped for lunch and warned Alan that I would be late at our rendezvous.

20190518 Berriedale harbour
Berriedale harbour

In all honesty I was probably too tired to appreciate the magnificent scenery on this section of the trail.  The walk out of Berriedale seemed endless with difficult vegetation and no clear path.  The waterfall at Allt Na Buaidhe was non-existent and the path further on difficult to find.

20190518 Big cliffs and bad weather
Big cliffs and bad weather

The weather was not helping bringing fog and poor visibility, thus explaining the lack of photos.  The sea arch at An Dun was spectacular as was the sea stack called The Clett.

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A few miles before Dunbeath I followed the trail away from the sea, through a herd of cows, to the old A9 and Dunbeath.  I met Alan at the Post Office at 4.15.

All in all a hard day in the office.  With hindsight I think I mainly brought it on myself.  I only had a small pot of porridge for breakfast, and had not got enough food with me. Tomorrow I have farther to walk, but will only have a light daysack, and that’s going to be loaded with lots of food!

20190518 Looking down a geo (zawn)
Looking down a geo (zawn)

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

 

12th May – Inverness to Evanton

 

20190512 Kessock Bridge over the Beauly Firth at Inverness
Kessock Bridge over the Beauly Firth at Inverness

After spending last week with friends it seemed a little strange to be on my own again.

I left Inverness at 8.15, walking along the River Ness through the industrial part of the city.  The trail passed a clock tower, built during Cromwell’s time, and then went over the Kessock Bridge.  I inadvertently managed to use a path on the bridge which was supposed to be closed, and was delighted when the workmen were happy to let me pass rather then making me return and use the other side.

20190512 Cromwell's clock tower
Cromwell’s clock tower

On entering the Black Isle, I climbed up into the first of many woods and crossed a ridge, before dropping down to Munlochy Bay.

20190512 Munlochy bay
Munlochy Bay

From there it was back into the woods on another ridge leading to the Clootie Well. The trees here were hung with all sorts of things including Teddy Bears, socks, shoes, pieces of cloth and other detritus.  Apparently the well has healing powers and seems very popular.  Unfortunately I failed to take a photo.

20190512 Looking north from the ridge above Culbokie
Looking north from the ridge above Culbokie

From the well more woodland tracks and minor roads led to Culbokie overlooking the Cromarty Firth.  The Culbokie Inn beckoned me to stop for a reviving cup of tea, and made a fine lunch stop.

20190512 Approaching the Cromarty Bridge
Approaching the Cromarty Bridge

Walking down to join the A9, I then crossed the Cromarty Bridge, which was a real pleasure with cars and lorries hurtling by a couple of feet away.  Luckily, just after the bridge I could escape up a track to join a minor road, which led to Evanton where I arrived at 4.00.

20190512 The Cromarty Bridge
The Cromarty Bridge

Not the most inspiring of days, but I had sunshine most of the day so should not complain too much.  I have two more days of road and tracks through woods to look forward to, before things improve and the trail moves to the coast.

20190512 The long straight road
The long straight roads…

3rd May – Drumnadrochit to Inverness

20190503 Urquhart Castle
Urquhart Castle

Wyn and I left Drumnadrochit at 7.15, anticipating a long day before reaching Inverness.

Initially the route follows the A82, before turning into the Abriachan Forest and ascending up to 380m.   Around 9.00 we stopped for a break and had just restarted when the snow began to fall.   For the next few hours we were treated to bouts of snow and hail.

20190503 Wyn battling through the snow
Wyn battling through the snow

We reached the eco-campsite near Abriachan, and stopped for bacon rolls, coffee, tea and cakes.  The food was excellent – but be warned, it is not cheap, and you might want to check on prices before ordering anything.

20190503 Five Star Cafe at the Eco Campsite
Five Star cafe at the Eco-campsite

Suitably replete and having been joined by Ove, a German friend we had met on the trail and whose partner had decided to stop at the cafe, we set off along a minor road with increasing views as the weather improved.

20190503 Five star breakfast stop
Improving weather as we leave the Eco campsite

After an hour or so of road walking, it was back into the forest before receiving our final dose of hail.

20190503 Wyn in the forest
Final dose of hail…

Descending Dunain Hill, Inverness can be seen but the final 6k has still to be completed.

20190503 Storm clouds over Inverness
Just 6 more kilometres to go…

The trail links areas of greenery in a clever way eventually leading to the Caledonian Canal and along the banks of the River Ness.

20190503 Crossing the River Ness
Crossing the River Ness

We passed Inverness Cathedral on the opposite bank of the river.

20190503 Inverness Cathedral
Inverness Cathedral

Then with a short sharp climb the trail ends at Inverness Castle.  We arrived at 4.30.

20190503 Inverness Castle
Inverness Castle

It was great that Wyn was able to join me for The Great Glen Way, and we are looking forward to completing the Offa’s Dyke Trail later in the summer.

20190503 Wyn at the end of the Great Glen Way
Wyn at the end of the Great Glen Way

Tomorrow I am going to Braemar for a week with my friends from MAC (Mountain Activities Club).   I will resume blogging again next Sunday.

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

17th April – Uphall to Falkirk

20190417 The only barge we saw on the Union Canal
The only barge we saw on the Union Canal

This was to be another long day on the Union Canal.

20190417 Niddry Castle near Winchburgh
Niddry Castle near Winchburgh

I left Uphall at 7.45, as I had around 5k to walk before meeting up with Rachel at 9.00 at Winchburgh.  Luckily we arrived within minutes of each other.

The only memorable parts of this section were the huge slag heaps and the Peel tower at Niddry Castle.

After a lot of catching up, Linlithgow eventually appeared, with the skyline dominated by Linlithgow Palace, the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots.  In all honesty, we were more interested in tea and cakes which were amply provided by the Strawberry Cafe (highly recommended).

20190417 Linlithgow Palace
Linlithgow Palace

I am sometimes asked why I do not visit more of the tourist highlights that I pass.  I think it is that I have to view the trip as a job.  Each day the objective is to reach the next stopping place, and I do not want to be diverted from that task.

20190417 Rachel at the Avon aqueduct
Rachel at the Avon Aqueduct

Leaving Linlithgow, we trudged on passing the Avon Aqueduct, which is very similar to the Pontcysyllte aqueduct in Wales.

20190417 Toad

The only other excitement was finding a toad on the path.

Nearing Falkirk things looked up.  The Falkirk Tunnel was a joy, with stalactites hanging from the ceiling and large picturesque calcite deposits on the walls.

The tunnel is 631m long and was constructed because a wealthy industrialist, John Forbes, objected to the canal being visible from his estate!

20190417 Neil at the Falkirk Tunnel
Neil at the Falkirk Tunnel

We left the canal at the Tunnel to walk into Falkirk for more tea.  We arrived around 3.45.  Once we found my hotel, Rachel caught a bus back to Winchburgh.  It was great to have Rachel’s company for a 20-mile day, and our conversation made the walk pass quickly.

After I had a quick shower and dinner, John arrived to take me to see the Kelpies.

20190417 Neil at the Kelpies
Neil at the Kelpies

These are breathtaking and a must-visit if you are ever in the area.  The photos speak for themselves.

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10th April – Ickornshaw to Gargrave

20190410 Lothersdale
Lothersdale

Wyn and I woke feeling refreshed, and after a cooked breakfast left Winterhouse Barn at 8.30.  Tony and Olwyn could not have been better hosts.

The day was easier than the previous days being both shorter (18k) and with less ascent (520m).

We started by walking up to Gill before passing over Cowling Hill and descending into the picturesque village of Lothersdale.  The pub provided seats for a short break, but was being renovated.

Leaving Lothersdale we walked on past Hewitts Farm before the big climb of the day to Pinhaw Beacon.  The paths were not as rough and rocky as previously and we made good progress.  We met some friendly walkers on the summit and were reassured that they were even older than we were.

Pinhaw Beacon marked the end of the South Pennines and the Yorkshire Dales could be seen before us.  We descended from the Beacon towards Thornton-in-Craven, and after a little more gentle ascent arrived at the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. Walking on the towpath for a while made a pleasant interlude.

20190410 Church at East Marton
East Marton church

We passed East Marton Church near the site of the curiously named Fish Ponds Hall. Next came the famous double arched bridge which carries the A59 over the canal.

20190410 Double-arch bridge at East Marton
Double-arch canal bridge at East Marton

Finally the much awaited Bridge 162 appeared and the Abbot’s Restaurant and Teashop. As it would have been impolite to deprive them of our custom we felt obliged to stop for cream teas.  I also needed to instruct Wyn in the correct (Cornish) way to apply the jam and cream.

20190410 Afternoon tea at the Abbots Restaurant East Marton
Everything stops for tea…

Much refreshed we left the canal and set off up a road with “garlic-scented ramsons” in the woods.  Leaving the road went across rolling drumlin hills and ascended Scaleber Hill to see Gargrave in the valley below.  We arrived at the Mason’s Arms at 5.10 after a much better day.

One of the pleasures of the past few days has been listening to the curlews and lapwings.  For the ornithologists: we saw a red kite, near Walshaw Dean Reservoir, being bombed by lapwings.  Apparently they are rare up here despite being so common in Oxfordshire.

After a fine dinner and the opportunity to rehydrate, we could look forward to an easier day on Thursday.