Wednesday, 30 April 2008

The Road is long, with many a winding turn...

Last nights meal was superb! Of course, I had to go back to "La Mirage" again because what's good enough for Clarissa D.W. is good enough for me. According to the advert in the window, she rates it in her top 5 fish restaurants. Which is why, remote as Helmsdale is, this place is always humming.
I reluctantly checked out of the B & B, never to know if I was going to miss a great party. From hereon it was onwards and downwards. Today, at least, was going to be a mere stroll of 11 miles to Brora, and as the beginning of the end of the tortuous A9 it should have been a good day. So why, for goodness sake, did it seem so tediously long? Probably because the only highlight was a plaque which marked the spot where the "Last wolf was killed" I was puzzled. How could they be so sure? Did a wolf hold up his forelegs and say "Please don't kill me, I'm the last one!" I doubted it.
Plodding on, what kept me going was the thought that a) I'd be in Dornoch tonight and b) this long trek on the A9 was coming to an end. I may well be trying to promote walking for health, but the only people walking on this road are going about 1000 miles in either direction, and with the locals being ever so keen to leap out and tell you about whose ahead or behind you it's slightly annoying when you never ever actually get to meet them.
The boredom of it all must have slowed my pace because on reaching the outskirts of Brora I had to race to catch the bus to Dornoch. No easy feat with a heavy rucksack on an unusually warm day.
Bathed in the late afternoon sunshine, Cathedral Square, was a photographers dream. Busy snapping away, I was enjoying the peaceful idyll, when from across the road wafted the dulcet tones of an East End oik, bellowing down his mobile phone "It's *******brilliant 'ere mate! I'm just off to the boozer to sink a couple of pints, and when you get 'ere. we'll 'ave a few *******more and get absolutely*******blathered! Supposing he was a builder drafted up from the south to work on one of the many new developments sprouting up here, he may have ruined the moment, but at least I knew not to eat at the Dornoch Inn tonight.
On arrival the B & B was as immaculate, as the owner. I guessed, correctly, he was a golfer, because, along with the pressed trousers and the "Pringle" draped around his shoulders, he had that lightly tanned chiseled Andy Williams look about him. How is it that Golfers seem effortlessly able to pull off that "smart but casual" look, and also somehow get away with wearing pink or yellow sweaters on or off the course?
Horrified, when I related my Wick B & B experience, he said "But didn't you check it's star rating?" "Err, what stars? He shook his head like I was a complete dimwit (true) and proudly informed me he had, until recently, been "The only 4 star B & B in the village"
It was almost a sacrilege to empty the contents of my rucksack into this show home of a bedroom, but I needed a shower (en-suite-of course) and food.
And what a disappointment the alternative pub was. Sticking to the fish theme, I selected "Salmon with a white wine and dill sauce". Putting in my complaint, the waitress stormed off through the swing door to the kitchen "Chef, table number 5 complaining about the sauce" The sauce, or lack of it, was the problem. Too tired and hungry to send it back, we called a truce. I paid up and she didn't get her tip.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

What a difference a day makes

How well I remembered Helmsdale in 2007. With an hour to spare before catching the bus back to Dornoch, I'd mooched around the village looking for, well , for want of a better word, life! But this was a village in a 50's time warp, Wednesday afternoon meant half day closing and the only place open was the weird, wacky and tacky "La Mirage" restaurant. A favourite haunt of Barbara Cartlands. Photo's of her (and her look-a-like friend, the owner) adorned the walls. But what was more interesting were the strange collection of artefact's around the room. Sipping my tea, looking at a stuffed bear, holding a fish, was indeed a bizarre experience.
And here I was again, eating my fish & chips, under the watchful gaze of the bear. The photo's had gone (sadly, the owner had died last year) but the bear, the pink frilly lampshade and the full size model of Elvis in the window remained. Under new management, I for one, was nostalgically glad that some things hadn't changed.
The next morning, with time to kill before the Dunbeath bus arrived, I took the Helmsdale Town Trail. Yesterday, I'd just had time to snuck into the excellent "Time Span" museum before it closed, and armed with my map, on a beautiful sunny morning, Helmsdale took on a completely different persona. It's amazing what a difference a day makes. I discovered places I'd never noticed last year. The only disappointing discovery was that the "Spar" had closed down. Last year it had enticed me in with it's sandwich board offering all sorts of goods, and "Lot's Lot's more" except, of course, it was closed, being a Wednesday afternoon.
I took in the harbour, the old church and the "Telford Bridge" before meandering through the streets to the bus stop.
Visiting the museum had given me a sense of what life must have been like for these hard working Caithness folk. I hadn't quite realised the extent of the Herring fishing industry. Villages all along the east coast were trawling in bucket loads of fish , Wick being the Daddy of them all, landing up to a staggering 25 million herring a day. It was a tough life, especially for the women. Not only did they have to carry their men to the boats (so they didn't get wet, poor things) they then carried creels weighing up to 112lbs for up to 30 miles to the nearest market. The fishermen, meanwhile, job done, descended on the local hostelries to drink copious amounts of whisky. Not surprisingly, the fishwives were tough fearsome creatures, prone to smoking and swearing,and yet, perversely, extremely moral. So pity the drunken fisherman, staggering home from the pub, facing the wrath of the wife.
Anyway, all of this preamble puts my "challenging walk" with a 15lb pack on my back into perspective.
For today, at least, the rucksack had a day off, as I, the stick, the orange hat and the daysack jumped off the bus in Dunbeath, ready for an easier 15 mile trek back to Helmsdale. With no pressure of keeping to bus timetables, and fired up with a renewed interest in history, I trekked off the road to the Dunbeath Heritage Centre. Yet another closed door, and annoyingly, they should have been open. "April to September" said the sign. Next to the sign was a poster advertising a "gig" A young "Gunn" was performing in a club in Wick. "An eclectic mix of traditional Scottish folk music...rap, reggae, and rock. Sounds interesting, perhaps I should have stayed in Wick after all.
Anyway, no point hanging around with regrets, I had to gear up for the challenge of the "Berriedale Switchback" the Highland drivers equivalent of "Nemesis" at Thorpe Park. The approach looks really scary, but the reality is, it's just a stretch of road that steeply goes up and down, has sharp bends, oh, and teeters on the edge of a cliff. So no, I wouldn't want to be in a car. Walking, as long as your careful not to lean too far over the edge taking stunning photo's, your safely up the other side before you know it.
I was looking forward to the next, and only other, highlight on the road to Helmsdale. "The Badbea Village" (or the remains of) I'd given it a miss last year, but in this years "History Fest" quest I had to go and see just what it was all about. Or did I?
To say the weather is changeable up here is a gross understatement. By the time I got there, a gale force wind was saying "don't go" so I didn't and I'll tell you why.
The Countess of Sutherland who owned all the land around here, decided that sheep farming was the way forward. "Orf my land" she said to all the locals, and with scant regard to their homes and livelihood, "The infamous "Clearances" began. One group of die hards, headed by John Badbea, decided to brave out a living on the cliffs edge. With winds so strong, they not only had to tie down the cattle, but small children as well.
Just imagine the scene...Crofters wife eagerly awaits husband return from a hard days work with exciting news... "Darling, guess what, little Jocasta has just taken her first steps, and she's only 9 months! Quite clearly an early sign of intelligence don't you think?" "That may well be" he replies with a sigh, "but you know what that means don't you? We'll have to tie her down for the next five years. Pour me a large whisky will you, and then I'll go and look for the wooden stakes and some rope"... It was indeed a struggle, and it couldn't last.
By 1903 they gave up and moved out, and now all that remains is a pile of stones and a memorial . Either of which, I didn't see, having been warned by the sign on the A99, if the winds are high, beware! So I did, and stuck to the road.

Friday, 25 April 2008

35 "Irn Bru" cans hanging by the road

Today's topic of conversation over breakfast was: "Red Ken" and the G.L.C. , The Brixton Riots, Wandsworth Council Tax and the storm of '87 and the link is?, we'd both lived in South West London during the '80's.
Wick, grey, cold and miserable was getting on my "Wick" and I muttered my feeble excuses as to why I wasn't, after all, staying another two nights as originally planned-"unexpected arrival of friends in Inverness" and made a quick exit through the door into an attractive town bathed in sunlight and blue sky!
Well, it was too late to change my mind, as last night, in the library, I'd looked, and found on the internet, somewhere else to stay. Making a decision to never again book somewhere without a web address, I'd found alternative accommodation in Helmsdale.
3 miles down the road, carrying the heavy rucksack was the downside of moving B & B's. Accompanied by aching limbs, and a lack of entertainment through the headphones (I'd competed and lost, yet again, against the "Pop Master"contestants on Radio 2 and with nothing of any interest on Radio 4) I was getting bored.
I know! "I'll sing!" How about "I've got a 100 miles to go and that's a long, long way I know, and each and every step I tread, the road just stretches far ahead..." what a very apt tune, unfamiliar to most, with the exception of any 20-22 year old ex Tadworth primary School pupils, as this was a song from the excellent 1997 School production of "The Minotaur Show"
So, what now? Let's play "Count the Cans" I'm sure this litter problem gets worse every year. Considering it was early in the season, the detritus strewn by the road was unbelievable.
Items of clothing, odd, but even odder, one shoe. Now, why throw away one?
Apart from the familiar "Irn Bru" cans, the next most popular throw away item is the "Free CD" given away in most Sunday Newspapers. E.g."Sounds of the Sixties, 12 great hits from this golden era!" turn out to be one or two catchy tunes, and 10 very forgettable ones, which begs the question "Were the sixties really that great?" and out of the window it goes.
With the absence of the OS map (no point in carrying extra weight, when even I can't get lost on the road) I was having to guess how far I'd got. With 21 miles to walk to Dunbeath, and a bus to catch to Helmsdale, I couldn't stroll, that's for sure.
Last year's walk was about people, this years walk was going to be about places and I'd already decided I was going to soak up some local history as I went along. With an average speed of 3 miles an hour, when I came across the sign for "The Hill O' Many Stanes" (only a 1/4 mile detour up a side road) I decided I could afford the time to investigate.
Dating from about 1900 BC, 200 stones were arranged in 22 fan shaped rows. The theory is that they were used for astronomical observations of the moon. The colourful drawing of how it would have looked all those years ago failed to fire my imagination, as I looked at a pile of pebbles. More interestingly, this site also marks the site of a battle between two rival clans, The Keiths and The Gunns. The famous Gunns (of course) won and buried the dead, right here, in rows, marking each one with a stone.
So next stop, The Clan Gunn Heritage Centre, where their motto is "Either peace or war" "You'll find us quite peaceable these days and welcoming rather than warlike" said the brochure. Glad to know that reassuring snippet of information, however what I found was another closed door. "Open May to September" So, what can I tell you about the Gunns? Well, the most famous descendant of the Clan was Neil M Gunn, the 20th Century Scottish novelist, born in 1891 in the Caithness fishing village of Dunbeath. He wrote many novels about the area he lived in all his life. As well as writing, he worked as a civil servant, and must have made a bob or two, to have spawned a Gunn dynasty of entrepreneurial business men, as found on the beach yesterday.Just as well it was closed, as I'd forgotten just how far from Dunbeath this museum was.
Trudging through the hamlets of Latheron and Latheron wheel I started to panic. I had to make that bus! The Highland bus service is brilliant, well used, but not frequent. I'd have a long, long, wait for the next one. Then just over the next hill, there was Dunbeath, nestling in the valley.Phew!
On the bus, a young boy piped up "Are you staying at Grannie's tonight?" According to Grannie, sitting behind him, indeed I was. They'd been shopping in Wick. Getting off the bus, I asked him what he'd bought. "We've been to "Aldi's" he replied, and hadn't they just, as off the bus came Grandad, Mum and the bus driver to empty the contents of the luggage compartment. Wheely suitcases, laundry bags and numerous carrier bags, all full of food supplies. All hands to the handles, so I pitched in as we trundled back to the B & B, luckily, just around the corner. Apparently, they don't have a car, and this big shop was for a big party on Friday night, to which I was also invited.
Feeling very much at home, I was shown to an enormous room, with an equally large bathroom. I was more than ready for a long soak in a hot tub. Ahh bliss!


Saturday, 19 April 2008

A Day to Remember

Waking up in the attic bedroom I had a "Room at the Top" experience. As I plugged in the two bar electric fire, (the radiator being temperamental I'd been told) It was all so surreal, like being in a 1960's kitchen sink drama, but before I was tempted to scrabble round for shillings for the meter and pencil and paper to re-write "A Taste of Honey" meets "Saturday Night & Sunday Morning" my stomach told me I hadn't eaten since 4pm yesterday.
Breakfast was another experience. Presented with a fully fried breakfast, under the assumption that I'd need stoking up on the first day, I had to swap it for an egg on toast.
Being the only guest in the B & B (no surprise there) the owner was keen to strike up conversation. I wasn't. He proceeded anyway, to tell me about the imminent birth of his first grandchild and the party plans for his Mother's 80th. Today was not a good day to talk about Birthdays, but then he wasn't to know that.
At the bus stop I met "Jimmy", spitting and smoking outside the shelter. "Is this where I get the 75 to John O' Groats?" "Aye" Taking that as a yes, another traveller turned up. "Aye Jimmy" "Aye" he replied. Now this was the economical sort of conversation I needed today. As Jimmy got off outside the hotel in Keiss,and shuffled along the path, I wondered if he'd missed the last bus back from "Weatherspoons" last night.
When the bus deposited me at JOG and drove off into the fog, looking around,I realised I was the only solitary person there. At 9.30 am, I wasn't concerned. As the shops and the cafe opened up for business there was still no sign of the man with the sign. A major blow, as this year, I'd decided to be "cheesy", pay to get my photo taken, pick up my "Passport" and join the hallowed "End to End Club"
"Well, did you ring him last night?" said the lady in the gift shop "Err no, was I supposed to?" "He doesn't turn out at this time of year, in this weather, unless you ring him the night before". No photo then. Next question, "Where can I get my passport and join the club?" "Right here!" she replied, "If you go over there and sign the guest book, I'll get it ready", and, she continued, darkly, "Be careful not to give away to much personal information" "Such as?" "Well, I'd say, name only. No address, telephone number, e mail, bank account details, sort code, pin number, d.o.b., sex, orientation, chest size ...." Ok" I stopped her there, "I think I get the idea"
It was interesting looking back over other peoples entries, how and why they'd "Jogled" or "Lejoged" But really, by car? surely that was tantamount to cheating! Suddenly she loomed over my shoulder "I hope you're not putting comments on other peoples entries, it's not allowed". "Of course not" I replied "Only on the ones who did it by car. I just put, Do it the hard way you Jessie's!." "Well", I added, "it's hardly in the true spirit of a Jogle/Lejog challenge now is it?"
Of, course that wasn't quite how the conversation went, I didn't want to be excommunicated from the club before I'd even joined. Apparently, my entry will be photocopied and sent to Lands End. So, I'd better be on my best behaviour throughout this trip and report in to H.Q. Land's End with a click of the heels and a smart salute. "Carol Pollock reporting in at Lands End at 17.00 hours on 01.09.08. Here is my passport, stamped, at Post Offices en route, and I think you will find, on checking your records, that I did indeed leave John O'Groats at 09.50 hours on 08.04.08, Sir!"
With the absence of the sign, I took the only photo opportunity left open.The man in the "First and Last" gift shop obligingly took one of me at the harbour wall.
I needed to get going, and with all the vim and vigour of first day enthusiasm and absence of aching limbs, I made it to Keiss in just over 2 hours. What also helped was the "Walkman" on my mobile phone. My daughter had downloaded 3 hours worth of my favourite tunes (plus a few of her own odd choices) Plugged in, with only the sheep as an audience, I can recommend belting out Boston's "A Man I'll never Be" , at the top of one's voice, for an exhilarating experience and now I had the brief beach reprieve from the A99 to look forward to.
Last year, Hamish, a very helpful and handsome young sales assistant in the outdoor clothing shop and Information Centre in Wick, had suggested this detour off the main road. We'd gone in to buy socks for Dave and while he looked at socks, Lynne and I looked at Hamish.
Gambling along the sand dunes, I turned the music off to listen to the sounds of the sea before descending onto the beach. It was breathtaking, but then ahead of me, marring this wonderful view, was this great big yellow monstrosity with a pipe attached. Like a giant building toy, it towered over the beach. I had to find out why. I could see trucks, machinery and men in hard hats beavering away, and
as I approached, I saw the name on the truck "John M Gunn & Sons Ltd" Ah the famous Gunns! I'll have to tell you more about them tomorrow. For now I approached Mr "Hard Hat" The yellow thing turns out to be a contraption to transport oil to somewhere or other. "The largest of it's kind" he said proudly "But surely it's not going to be a permanent feature of this lovely beach?" I asked, aghast, "Oh no",he replied nonchalantly," we'll move on to somewhere else next year" Anyway, it was time to stop asking questions and move on before he clapped a hard hat on my head and set me to work.
And it wasn't long before I came to the river Dave and I had waded across last year, but that was July, and this was April. It was tempting, as the beach stretched on for another two miles ahead, but I didn't fancy frost bitten toes, so headed back to the road. Not so easy with a large obstacle in the way, namely, the yellow pipe, which close up was the size of a tunnel! There was no choice. With a furtive glance at the "Gunn men" in the distance I hoisted myself over as quickly as I could without being spotted.
Back on the road again, I approached Wick, with an agenda in my head. First stop, the Info Centre. Hamish was either on his day off, or jetting round the world on photo shoots. I hoped the latter. Picking up a map of the town, I needed to find the Library and the Churches. The library was open until 7pm, so first I went to light a candle, and believe me, I tried every church door in town, all were locked, as was the Wick Heritage Centre I'd also planned to visit being intrigued by the advertisement in a Highland brochure, "Behind a small exterior, the museum is huge, a must see attraction!"
Well, I couldn't see, so it was off to the library where I was ready and prepared for the Highland visitor policy on using the Internet. Compulsory Passport I.D for a measly 1/2 hour time slot in the computer room.
If I'd hoped they might relent and extend the time period ( I was the only customer) I was disappointed. "Most certainly not, besides, we're moving the furniture in here at 6pm as we're having a new carpet fitted and you'll be blocked in" the Library Manager beamed cheerfully. Quite clearly a new carpet was the most exciting thing to have happened in Wick Library in years. Enthusiastically he began dragging tables in at 5.45. Steady on! Tempted to whip up a banner "I shall not be moved" to hold aloft over the sea of tables and chairs, I instead, left for the only place left to go on a wet, windy evening in Wick. Weatherspoons for an early supper. Perhaps I could buy Jimmy a drink, Aye, I was ready for a spot of conversation now.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

To Wick and beyond

Apart from a brief smokers stop at Keeble Services, we pulled into Glasgow Bus Station at 7.00 am and invited to get out and stretch our legs for 20 minutes, followed by a dire warning from the driver that he wasn't responsible if we weren't back on the bus at 7.20. Did anyone ever really not get back on a bus to a place they had obviously paid to get to? Possibly a tough decision for me today, as I was in one of my favourite haunts, Buchanan Bus Station. I'd loved commuting from my friend Margaret's flat in Glasgow last year. Up & down "The West Highland Way" this bus station was like a familiar friend and since I'd only payed £2 return for the journey from London to Inverness it was tempting to stay awhile.
But no, I had a walk to start tomorrow, and so with my allotted 20 minutes, the first port of call had to be the coffee shop, as I needed caffeine. On "LeJog" last year I'd realised just how much. Following the worst night on the walk in a flea infested Wig Wam outside Tyndrum, I, and fellow addicts were, at 8.00 am shuffling restlessly on the porch of the General Store cum Take-Away, waiting for the doors to open. By 8.15 we were twitching and by 8.30 there was no alternative but to walk the two miles to the "Green Welly Cafe" in Tyndrum. It certainly didn't feel like the same two mile journey made under the influence of alcohol the night before. My head felt as heavy as the pack on my back, but after the first cup... "Zing!" I was back firing on all cylinders.
As half the passengers had disembarked at Glasgow, those of us going on to Inverness had room to spread out and catch up on some sleep. So it was, with one eye half open, that I took in the route I'd be following through the Cairngorms on the next leg. Through a swirl of hail and snow it looked pretty grim, but surely, I thought, it won't be like this in May. I'd also got fond memories of Inverness in the July sunshine but, in a bitingly cold April, it wasn't quite the same. Plans to stroll along the riverside towards "Ness Island" were aborted for a dash through the rain to the Information Centre to pick up bus timetables.
Clutching my "City Link Highland Bus Pass" I was off again. Passing northwards through the familiar towns and villages it was hard to believe I'd be walking backwards along this long route. Finally arriving in Wick, I was looking forward to a good nights sleep. The B & B had sounded promising over the phone, but standing outside a house with boarded up windows, it was with some trepidation that I knocked on the paint flaked door. I'd already got an idea of what it would be like inside. Just imagine student digs without the clutter, and you've got the picture. Led to the attic bedroom I feared the worst, but actually, it had a quaint charm about it. Ok, the shower was circa 1970. but with a new showerhead, proudly demonstrated by the owner, at least it worked and the water was hot. One quick sniff of the sheets confirmed that they, at least, were clean, and that was all I needed to know.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Chapter One. The Highland Fling. John O' Groats to Inverness

"Where's she taking us now" groaned the rucksack and the orange hat, as they were dragged reluctantly from the depths of the cupboard.
"Guess what?" I said, as we boarded the coach at Victoria, "You know how John O' Groats seems like a dream to us now? Well, it's about to become a reality, we're walking backwards!"
They may not have been impressed, but the new recruit was very excited. "I say, I say, Mr Coach Driver, are we REALLY going all the way to Inverness? Boom! Boom!"
"Calm down, you're a walking stick, not Basil Brush. We've got a long journey ahead of us, and as you've got the toughest job to do, we'd all better try and get some sleep" I said, stowing him and the others into the luggage rack.
The bus was full, but finding an aisle seat at the back of the coach a nice girl from Perth offered me her window seat and then probably regretted it.I spent the next five minutes invading her space by dropping pens, paper, and food supplies on her lap, before deciding to pop to the toilet before "lights out"
Closing the door, I expected "lights on" automatically and when this didn't happen, groping round in the dark, I pressed the red emergency button! Oh dear, this was not a good start. Sheepishly, I made my way back to my seat, glad that the lights were low.
On the subject of sheep, sleep was hard to come by. I was worried about this task I'd set myself of walking 900 miles in 60 days. Not feeling half as fit as I was last year, with an average daily mileage of 18 miles, this first leg of 120 miles, mostly on the A9/A99, was going to be a tough one. So, I tried the equivalent of counting sheep and although counting the cars on the M1 to Scotland doesn't quite evoke the same spirit of travel and adventure,as "The New Jersey Turnpike" I did eventually drift off.