Helmsdale to Thurso, via John O’Groats and Dunnet Head
I left Ruard guesthouse in Helmsdale on the dot of 9 this morning, having feasted on porridge, followed by bacon, mushrooms and scrambled egg. I retraced my way through the village, and back up the road that followed the course of the Helmsdale river. The rabbits running across the road in front of me were in plentiful supply, as were the fishermen, who were driving up to get to their beat for the day.
It was cooler than yesterday, and I was cycling almost head on into the wind, so I made slow progress up the hill to Kinbrace. I stopped after an hour to put my armwarmers on, and felt the benefit immediately.
I got a second chance to photograph a house sign that I saw, but didn’t snap yesterday. So much for my musings of this morning about not getting second chances!
There was a kind of plateau at the top, and the railway ran alongside the road and Loch an Ruathair. I wondered how many places I would recognise when the train I would be on passed by them tomorrow. Just before the road began to tilt downwards, I saw a military plane on the horizon, that then dipped below it. The next thing it was flying straight towards me. It must have been on a training exercise from RAF Lossiemouth.
The land on this side of the plateau was much more densely populated with dwellings than the other, but that wasn’t setting the bar very high, as the southern part had about one house every couple of miles, if that. The road followed the river Halladale northwards and downwards for the most part, and I saw my first heron of the trip on the river, as it sprung up and flew away with apparent ease, seemingly beating its huge wings in slow motion.
Finally I reached the main road, and saw my first sign to John O’Groats. Turning right, and therefore east, meant that I had the wind more on my back, so progress was now swift. Arable land was mixed with that under pasture, and dotted about were houses in varying states of dilapidation. There must be some sort of sandy coloured slate quarried locally, which makes for a very attractive roof.
I passed Dounreay nuclear power station, decommissioned in 1994, and then I was being welcomed to Thurso. As I began to wonder where the hotel would be in the town, it appeared in front of me as the first building on the left. 53 miles done, and at my accommodation already, before lunch!
I was able to check in, and was given a lodge room outside of the main hotel, which meant that I could bring the bike inside! The receptionist was kind enough to print out an image of the STS logo that I had got Denise to e-mail me last night, meaning that I wouldn’t have to lug my netbook to JoG in order to display it.
I faffed around a bit, sorting out food and a minimal tool kit to take with me. I would not be taking my panniers for the rest of the day, so anything I wanted to take would have to fit in the dry bag or my back pockets.
While going through Thurso, I took the opportunity to locate the train station, and found out that there would be no need for me to get to the station very early tomorrow, as the train began its journey in Wick, and would only be stopping in Thurso for 3 minutes! My main concern on the trip has been not being allowed on the train with the bike, and therefore stranded in the north of Scotland. The bike is booked on the train, but I have heard from several people that this doesn’t count for a lot if the train is already full!
I grabbed a sandwich at the local Tesco before heading east to John O’Groats. I passed the sign to Dunnet Head, and also the turn off for Castle Mey, which the Queen Mother took on as a project after the death of her husband and restored. This was the last day that it would be open for a number of weeks, presumably to allow some members of the Royal Family to enjoy it.
I also spotted a curlew after hearing a strange call. This is the first one I think have ever seen.
John O’Groats was not as bad as I had feared. The hotel was under major refurbishment, with scaffolding up around it and no windows evident. Before getting there, I had decided not to get my photo taken at the signpost, and so when I got there, I flagged a chap down, and asked if he would take a photo of me. He proceeded to tell me how he had just cycled from Lands End in 6 and three quarter days, had a sore a**e, got no sleep and got eaten by midges at Loch Lomond. I wondered why he did it in that case, if he hated the whole experience, but didn’t feel it appropriate to proffer this thought! I was very glad that my experience of the last seven days had been so very different, with many pleasant memories to take back with me.
In the end I decided that I would get my photo taken at the signpost, getting the chap to load up San Martin de los Andes, where STS will be based come the autumn, and he had to add an extension to the sign to fit in all on!
The journey back west was tough going, straight into the westerly wind. All thought of viewing the scenery went out of the window as I put my hands on the drops and got acquainted with that famous Scottish sailor, Tar MacAdam. I fought for every foot of road until the turn for Dunnet Head. I got some respite on the way up to the head, as the road had hairpin bends, placing that wind more on my back for a while.
I eventually reached the lighthouse, and chatted to the RSPB girl there, who told me that it was a curlew that I saw. She was surprised, as it is more of a spring bird, but did identify it from my description and the dodgy photo that I had taken. She was also interested to hear of my sighting of a red kite at Beauly Firth.
After trying to photograph and video myself by the lighthouse, there was nothing to do except put my head down and head for Thurso.
The ‘Weigh Inn’, where I was staying, was now on the ‘way out’ of town, and it was heavy legs that finally got me there, with over 103 miles done in the day. For the first time since I began a week ago I was glad that the journey was over, but now, after a bath taken, and two main courses eaten, I am not so sure. Seeing the Orkney Isles so close (7 miles away at Dunnet Head, closer at John O’Groats) made me want to carry on going north through them, or head west (as long as that blessed westerly wind died down) to get to Cape Wrath and continue down the west coast. These trips will have to wait for another time, however, as my current adventure has come to an end, bar negotiating railway stations and train carriages tomorrow. As they might say back home, ‘It has been a good one, but.’
Day 7 statistics
Miles ridden: 103.3
Miles ridden with panniers: 53
Feet climbed: 4442
Dogs that jumped as I went passed: 1 (poor old thing!)
No. of unhappy cyclists met: 1