Graham's End to End - Part 1
GRAHAM’S GREAT BRITISH JAUNT
by Graham Thompson
Many signs point to the North from Watford, Scotch Corner, Perth and even Inverness so Watford was as good a starting point as any to reach this mythical land. We are told that the North starts at Watford, but this is not so! It also had the advantage of being on the route of the Caledonia sleeper which promised to whisk me to Inverness overnight. The departure board stated platform 6 where Annabel and I sat to while away the time. The driver had platform 8 in mind so it was a frenzied dash to change platforms as I could not afford to miss this one and only train on April 30. As there appeared to be no plans for bicycles despite booking passage for myself and the Tifosi, we shared the same compartment which ensured that we would not be separated when the train divided into three at Edinburgh. A final farewell from Annabel and the planning was paying off at last. Daybreak in Scotland was comforting as the bleak A9 and cold and snowy Cairngorms were viewed from the comfort of my bunk. Continental breakfast was served. Inverness station provided more coffee and a meeting with another ancient cyclist reminiscing about riders from my Glasgow days. The local train meandered to Thurso, but there were no signs for the mythical land of the North.
I was intent on reaching Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of the mainland. As I cycled away from Thurso the wind was generally in my favour. It was dry and sunny as some good milestones ticked off the final miles to the headland which was marked by a lighthouse, built by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of Robert Louis. It was one of many built by him, this one in 1831 and fully automated 20 years ago. I had reached the mythical land of the North at the end of the road along with a few hardy souls forsaking the comfort of their cars. Soon the signs would be directing me to the other mythical land: the South. My priority was to find food and Canisbay SYH. I have a photo of Ken Davis and Tony King from the 1960s here and the building looks much the same some 40 years later. It is still self-catering, bleak and remote, but warm and cosy indoors.
This was a short day and the test would come tomorrow. I slept the sleep of the innocent!
John O’Groats is a dreary place with a few gift shops and some attempts to attract visitors especially now that the Victorian hotel is closed and boarded up. Postcards gloss over the truth! Not much to attract the visitors today as it was cold and damp so I turned for the South only to be given the body blow in that the Shimano shifter would not engage the small ring – no amount of fiddling induced a change.
I decided to pursue my aim of reaching Duncansby Head, our most north easterly point. This has a lighthouse built in 1924 by another Stevenson and some spectacular cliff scenery. There was a deep valley en route which required a walk going and coming. I was the sole visitor apart from a lone walker. I was struck by the number of large houses and bungalows built on large plots of moorland in these areas with basic fences to keep out sheep: more sheep than humans, but who would choose to live here? It seemed to be all uphill to Wick where I had a welcome break for much needed double helpings of food and coffee. A storm of hail made me flee to the lee of some conifers with more gear fiddling before I reached the shelter of the Portland Arms Hotel at Lybster. Armchairs in the lounge, tea, scones, cream and jam restored my mood before facing the distant tests of the long hills at Dunbeath (bad) and Berriedale (infamous).
These two hills involved walking although I could just have cycled with a low gear up Dunbeath Hill which was realigned unmindful of cyclists. There was no way I could have cycled up Berriedale Hill which curved into the distance so a long walk ensued. Time was passing and again as happened so often on this jaunt it always seemed to be five miles to the next town. I established contact with the guest house in Helmsdale to confirm that I was on my way. This arrived sooner than expected due to a welcome downhill swoop and I was soon luxuriating in a hot bath and restoring my spirits with a real fire, beer, dinner and chat with Eric who lived in Norway north of the Arctic Circle. It was depressing to realise that I had taken all day to cover 60 miles plus another three walking the hills yet the next four days promised to be easier if the weather improved. As I had an objective in mind I had to omit looking at places of interest such as Wick (former capital of the herring industry), harbours at Lybster (another major herring port), Dunbeath and Helmsdale, and this became evident when passing through major attractions like Chester, Wells and Chepstow for instance. Another time!