Friday, 8 August 2014

The end of the end to end ... sunsets, signs, stacks and silhouettes

The penultimate evening of the walk was spent in Dunnet Bay, waiting for the rain to stop so that we could emerge from the tents and drink whisky on the sand, looking out to a misty silky sea, the line of the horizon indistinguishable as lone herons crossed the grey and lone fishermen drifted (first photo).
The final day began in bright sunshine and continued so as I felt myself walking faster and faster. It was a kind of involuntary reaction to the anticipation. We reached John O'Groats just after midday, in sun and with huge views of the Orkney Islands and Stroma, and seals in the bay. Photos by the sign were taken and after a good break the final mile and a half up to Duncansby Head felt like the proper and stunningly beautiful end it had promised to be. The Stacks of Duncansby were crystal clear surrounded by glimmering water and the sea birds circled to welcome us. We sat and watched the view, with whisky, and silently were grateful for being alive in that moment. No orcas unfortunately, even though I looked very hard!
Camping by the edge of the sea in JOG campsite we were treated to seals swimming about in the bay, a rainbow following a passing shower, lighthouses as the sun slowly sank and the most vivid colourful sunset.

And now we are in busy Moffat, half way back south. I am still trying to believe I walked over 1200 miles, in 81 days (that doesn't include rest days and injury days!). I've written a journal every night and maybe that will be written up more fully. There are thousands of photos. And more memories and people and gratitude. I have survived quite lightly, for which I am thankful! My feet are fine. My knees now keep me awake at night though! They're fine if I'm walking but otherwise the pain is pretty unbearable! And one day I may get the feeling back in my shoulders ...!
Having walked the length of Scotland and today travelled fast (ish) back south through it, it is still a place of mystery. We chose a slightly different route in the end to stay sane, and safe. But again and again I was silenced by the vast wildernesses.
To travel in slow motion over such a distance is to see places and people in a completely different light. I hope it's changed me, in good ways. And I hope one day soon I'll be able to put that into words.
I am also immensely grateful for the support of friends and family and for all those who have donated to BASR. I have had the freedom to do this, which in itself makes me more privileged than billions of people. And the people of Bethlehem and Palestine need solidarity more than ever. So, thank you.
For now, sleep, travel, and then life will become different again.

The end of the end to end ... sunsets, signs, stacks and silhouettes

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

A Tunnocks teacake by Dounreay, another end to end walker and his owner, and views of the Old Man of Hoy

Yesterday at the campsite in Melvich another walker turned up, Andy and his dog Alfie, also walking End to End. A rare sight. He's walking north to south though so has only just started. The thing is, he's done it before, south to north. Mad, but also hugely admirable and a good chap. His blog is:
We are seeing a lot of cyclists now as they all converge, but still only one other walker.
The Melvich campsite was in such a lovely spot and it was a treat to be able to sit out in the evening unbothered by midges and wrapped up in layers against the northern cold. The first photo is essential Scottish walking kit. You probably don't need to spend too much time guessing what's in the bottle. (And I've carried it since Fort William!).
This morning we woke to a midge free clear bright sunshiney day. The day got warmer and Orkney was so very clear across the sea. The second photo is of Orkney and if you look really carefully you'll see the Old Man of Hoy to the left of the island. On the route today we went past Dounreay and a well placed shop and I had to have a teacake before I leave Scotland. So good! As we came into the outskirts of Thurso we stopped for a drink of water and a car stopped and backed over the pavement towards us. The window was wound down, and the driver, an elderly, slightly deaf Irish woman, bellowed out that she'd drive us down to town as we looked tired. So we piled ourselves in and took a white knuckle ride down to the sea front while she talked nineteen to the dozen. What an angel.
Two days to go ...

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Wilderness, old men in empty places, the power of tea in a stranger's kitchen, and the sea of the north

I have reached the north coast!! This is a huge milestone and provoked a loud cheer from me half way through mile 22 today when the sea came into view. I have now officially walked from the south coast of the UK to the north coast. We are in a place called Bettyhill (was she the sister of Benny?) after a route rethink due to bad weather and midges and supplies ... Still four days to John O'Groats. But only four days!
The first photo is sunset over Loch Shin at Lairg, two nights ago. The following day began grey and cold and got colder as we walked further and further into the vast empty moor of Sutherland. It really is unimaginably empty, surrounded by distant strangely shaped mountains. We reached the famous Crask Inn by 1.30 (2nd photo) and had homemade soup, local beer, tea and biscuits, whilst chatting to various old chaps who seemed to all be helping out ... perhaps had come in from the cold and never gone out again. One, a retired science teacher, delighted in picking blackcurrants from the oasis of their surprisingly thriving garden. On we went after this hospitable and unique experience out into the darkening moor, the massive Ben Klibreck looming out of the cloud to our right. We reached Alltnaharra by 5.30 (21 miles done) and after a time in the bar of the strange hotel, watching the sheets of rain come through, chanced our luck with camping on the tiny field of the tiny school. No one moved us on. It was a foul night. My tent flooded for the first time. Not a pleasant experience. We awoke to drizzle and low cloud and cold wind and were walking by 7.15 this morning. The first two hours along Loch Naver were stunning but gloomy. When we stopped for a break at about 10 though a little gap of blue sky appeared and within ten minutes we were in sunshine. We intended to wild camp again in Strath Naver tonight as it's 23 miles from Alltnaharra to the coast. As we were walking, looking for patches of comfortable grass this afternoon, a lady appeared at the doorway of a small croft house just above the Strathnaver road. She called over that we must be tired and wouldn't we like some tea. So into her small kitchen we went where she brewed us tea and gave us shortbread. Her son was there too. And we talked about walking and life in Strathnaver and multi-millionaire landowners, and were re-energised enough to complete the 23 miles to the coast. There are some truly and genuinely generous and wonderful people in the world.
So the 3rd photo is of the first view of the sea, and the 4th of this evening's sunset. It was a real moment seeing the sea. It brought to mind beginning in May back in Cornwall, in high winds and when the nights were longer and the days colder, and the journey in between.
But, there are still four days to go so no time to be too reflective yet! I'm very glad we came this way. And I'm very glad I've had company the last few days too.
Here's hoping the sea breeze will keep the midges away ....

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Further into the far north, camping wild, midges, tics and firths

We've reached Bonar Bridge and a night not in tents. The drizzle mist keeps coming in waves from the hills and over the Dornoch Firth. Walking over and watching the misty view widen out this morning (fourth picture) we stopped and made coffee by the road just as a bus full of Australian and American tourists pulled up and looked on in fascination. I think we may be in some holiday albums.
The first photo is our camping spot above the Guisachan forest, a few days ago. We had to search hard for this after a long walk on a wide scar of a track over empty hostile rocky, muddy, heathery landscape. It was perfect though, and quieter than you can imagine.
The second photo is our camping spot in Glen Strathfarrar, just by Loch Beannachran. Just as we had pitched, an osprey came flying up the glen. Up the glen to the west, huge mountains with snow fields towered silently.
The not-so-lovely thing about wild camping in Scotland in July is the midges. You can set up camp in a high breezy light place and feel pleased that you've avoided them, and by the morning the drizzle has come through and the wind has died down and the midges come out like you would not believe. The morning above the Guisachan forest, there were so many millions of them they sounded like a swarm of bees. And tics ... tics. It doesn't matter what you do, they will get you.
Because of the morning midge, we've found it's better to just get up and leave, and stop and make coffee later on. The third photo is coffee making in the porch of Struy church. Best coffee ever. This followed a slight change in the route plan after an experience close to purgatory, walking at less than 1 mile an hour over pathless heathery, brackeny, boggy moorland.
So, this and the fact that I am now putting medical tape over the holes in my tent to stop the midges coming in - oh, and that the hip belt on my rucksack has nearly given up - I am quite glad that it's only 7 or 8 days to go!
It is all incredibly beautiful though, in ways I've not really experienced before. Everything is huge, strange, stunning, and weathered. And here in this corner of the country the LEJOG cyclists converge. We've seen lots yesterday and today. No other walkers though ...!
Lairg, Crask Inn and then the vast remote Flow Country awaits. For now, tea and beer.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Saying goodbye to the West Highland Way and Waywalkers, Scotland under a heatwave, views of lingering snow, the Great Glen, and looking north

Continuing from the last post, from the top of Glencoe, under the towering Buachaille Etive Mor, the rest of the evening was spent round a campfire with two dutch friends. We talked and sang and drank whisky and tea and when we finally went to our tents at midnight there was still light in the north sky. I will always be grateful for that day and evening. And my coat still smells of bonfire.
The next day took a long path along Glencoe to Altnafeadh. The landscape is so big that you can walk for an hour and feel as though you are in the same place you started. I don't think I've had a day where I could still see my campsite two and a half hours after I left it. The first two photos are from the Devil's Staircase - the last view of Glencoe and Rannoch Moor, and the view north to the Mamores. A steep descent to sea level and Kinlochleven became warmer and warmer as Scotland started its heatwave. The last day of the WHW, over to Fort William, was hot. I walked fast to get to the shade and was treated to a full clear view of Ben Nevis. It really looks like the biggest mountain in the UK. The third photo is Ben Nevis from the forest road down into Glen Nevis and Fort William. From my pint in Fort William I watched the walkers come in, hot and tired, and kept having to remind myself that this time I hadn't finished. The fourth photo is the Lochaber Schools Pipe Band amidst their regular weekly performance in the town. They were good!

The last two days have been on the Great Glen Way, to the busy, touristy FortAugustus, in intense heat, along the wide, silky, deep blue Caledonian Canal. The fifth photo is of Ben Nevis, still visible after miles, with snow in its gullies, reflected in the River Lochy. And the sixth is of the canal looking back down to Loch Oich. 

I have company now. My dad is walking with me up to John O'Groats. 15 days to go. The last couple of days have presented no navigaton issues and I realise my thoughts are turning back to Leicester and work and people. But the next 15 days will require much concentration and energy. My bag is heavier than ever as we don't pass through many settlements. Wild camping  and plotting our course along old tracks and ancient drove roads ... it doesn't feel so anxiety provoking now that I'm here. But I am a little bit relieved that it's only another 15 days! I'm not sure how much I'll be able to blog from now. But I'm on my way!

Monday, 21 July 2014

18th-19th July. Connections of water, rail, road and sound (trying this again with photos attached!)

Still on the West Highland Way.A stunningly beautiful day yesterday along Loch Lomond, continuing to meet and re-meet fellow walkers from all over the world. At the beginning of the day two Israeli Jews prayed outside the Rowardennan hostel on the banks of the Loch, with full prayer scarves, and the little boxes on their heads (I can't remember what they're called). The day was breezy and sometimes sunny, so no insect life hanging around. This makes me happy. I saw a slow worm - very long and snake like, moving slowly, and unbothered by me. The first photo is a little bay looking south, almost at the north end of the loch, swept by wind and inland sand. Later, in the campsite in Glen Falloch, I sat outside the bar by an open fire with three lovely dutchmen and a wonderful young dutch couple, passing the evening with good conversation, beer, and an elementary lesson in counting in dutch. It was the kind of evening that I wished could last and last. And as I lay in my tent I heard the late night Glasgow to Oban train, and listened to a singer in the bar singing all the songs I learned at ceildhs on Iona.Today has been as dreich as anything. I don't think I've ever seen Tyndrum in sunshine. The walk up Glen Falloch - a glen which I've travelled by road and rail so many times in my life and holds deep memory - was half-lit by misty sunshine trying to show itself through the swirling clouds. The clouds won, and by the time I'd reached the sign to Crianlarich it was raining. What did I do at the Crianlarich sign? Not like me to break with tradition, even though I wasn't technically in Crianlarich.... It's a Saturday today and I saw the morning train up from Glasgow. There would have been people in it heading to Iona. I nearly ran after it shouting 'wait for me'! But still 280 miles to go. The second and third photos are Glen Falloch - railway and road. Tyndrum is busy. I think it's always busy. Tomorrow Rannoch Moor. Contrasts, connections, momentary meetings, reflection, and memory. The wilderness is getting closer.