Sunday, March 22, 2009

Walk 202 -- Brora to Helmsdale

Ages: Colin was 66 years and 318 days. Rosemary was 64 years and 95 days.
Weather: A lot of sun, but some sharp showers. Very windy — in fact it was gusty. We even had sandstorms!
Location: Brora to Helmsdale.
Distance: 12 miles.
Total distance: 1792 miles.
Terrain: Nearly all beach. Some rocky bits, some grass, but mostly sand. At the very end we had to walk a bit of the A9.
Tide: Going out.
Rivers: No.153, Loth Burn. No.154, Garbh Allt. No. 155, River Helmsdale.
Ferries: None.
Piers: None.
Kissing gates: None.
Pubs: None.
‘Historic Scotland’ properties: None.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: None.
How we got there and back: We were staying in a holiday cottage in Castletown. We had taken two days to drive up from Malvern, stopping overnight at a B&B near Lockerbie. The journey was over six hundred miles! This morning we got up very early and drove nearly fifty miles back to Helmsdale where we parked near the harbour. We walked up to the main road and caught a bus to Brora. There we walked down to the golf club car park where we had finished the last Walk.
At the end, we finished at the car. We had some tea and caramel squares, then returned the fifty miles to our cottage in Castletown.
We started today’s Walk at the exact spot we finished the last Walk six months ago, in the car park in front of the golf clubhouse in Brora. We went straight down on to the beach by the river where there was lots of sand. The tide was going out so the going got better and better. We were delighted to find that we could walk nearly all the way to Helmsdale on the beach, which we had all to ourselves because we met absolutely nobody. It might have been a generally fine Sunday, but it seems no one else was prepared to risk the cold wind and occasional squally showers. Most of the time it was absolutely glorious down on that beach!
For the first time in years I was walking with completely pain-free feet! I have overcome numerous corns, constant athlete’s foot, sunken arches, a heel spur, bunions, arthritis and an enormous blister. It was utter bliss to be walking along with totally comfortable feet at long last, but my back was playing up just a little to spoil it. (That probably flared up due to spending two days sitting in the car getting here, we’re over six hundred miles from home. Hopefully walking will loosen it, and it will settle down.) Colin’s problem knee is still painful, but he took some painkillers and didn’t mention it again.
We walked over a part of the beach where numerous shells were embedded in the sand. Just offshore — probably onshore when the tide goes right out — was a rock with the name MAX written in shells! One way of claiming ownership of a rock, I suppose.
Along the way we passed some oystercatchers and a flock of little white wader birds. They all flew up as we passed, then came down and resumed their feeding.
We suffered the occasional sharp shower, but they never lasted long. I ignored them, merely covering my camera with my hand until each one had passed. They were really very short-lived. But Colin kept pulling his cape on and ripping it off again even though he was wearing overtrousers and a thick hooded coat. At least he didn’t get out that wretched umbrella in that wind!
The beach was mostly sand which was lovely to walk on. But there were some rocky bits and occasionally we struggled, especially when the beach got narrow. We always got through though!
The rocks were varied and interesting — we saw breccias, granites, fossilised coral, etc.
Also cormorants sitting on the rocks out at sea.
The lighting was superb this second day of Spring, we felt very uplifted!
We sat on a rock to eat our pasties, but we didn’t stop long because it was too windy. The wind got up as we moved on and was blowing loose sand in waves across the beach. It was quite exciting to watch! We were relieved that the wind was blowing from behind us, we wouldn’t have liked that sand blowing in our eyes. The sun was also behind us so that wasn’t a problem either. We were really enjoying ourselves!
We passed a bit of cliff where fulmars were nesting, looking out on the world from their little ‘caves’.
Then we saw some seals in the water! (We did wonder if they were the same seals we saw just south of Brora last September.) Three of them kept bobbing up in the shallow water very near to us. There were lots more further away, quite a colony. They followed us along the shore, every time we looked they were still there even a couple of hours later! I’m sure they were just as curious about us as we were about them. It was too windy when we first saw them to have my camera out, I was afraid of getting sand in it. But Colin managed to get a few pictures by pulling his big hood right forward.
We were concerned about the first river we had to cross, just before the caravan site. It looked impossible on the map, but when we got to it we found that it was just shallow enough for us to run through without getting water in our boots. Relief!
We came to Lothbeg Point and tried to find a rock to shelter behind, almost under, to eat our sarnies. But it was too windy, and we just got pelted with sand. 
So we moved up to the caravan site where we found a small brick building with no windows or doors — we suspected it was built as a Second World War lookout post. Surprisingly it didn’t smell of wee, but it wasn’t very nice inside and extremely cold. So we swallowed our lunch as quickly as we could and moved on. We saw a group of students walk across the beach ahead of us, they looked as if they were on some kind of field course. They also looked very cold, and not very happy!
There were lots of caravans on the site, but it is a huge site and they were very spread out. I wouldn’t have left my caravan there in that wind! It is such an exposed spot, and several of the vans were held down with stout straps. Only one was occupied this March day.
We have recently bought a second-hand caravan ourselves. After several ‘adventures’ getting it up our very awkward drive, we are now more comfortable with it. In February we took it away for one night to a site very near to home, and learnt how to set it up with all the services and batten it down for the journey home. Then we took it away for two nights to a site much further afield. Colin soon got used to towing it, and I am very happy with its comfort and cooking arrangements. We are especially happy about the internal toilet — no more walking across a field in the middle of the night when we’re camping! We do intend to use it in future for our Round-Britain-Walk, but felt that towing it all the way to the north of Scotland in March, especially when we are still such novice caravanners, would be a bit too much. So, for the last time, we have booked a holiday cottage, this time in Castletown. Unlike that awful flat we stayed in near Dingwall last September, this cottage is spacious, warm, comfortable, and the landlady has been very welcoming. The shower works, and the electricity is included in the rent, so we’re not feeding a meter!
As we walked through the site we spied some highland cattle up on the ridge. They sported magnificent horns, but wouldn’t turn round for a photo! We followed a track to the very end of the site, then squeezed through a fence to get back on the beach.
The seals were still with us!
We followed a grassy path along the top of the beach which was now stony. The rain started to pour down rather intensely, so I struggled to put my overtrousers on. Then it stopped! But I kept them on for warmth, I had been getting gradually colder in that wind. I looked up, and there was a rainbow over the sea. Very pretty! We sat on a rock to have a rest, and ate our apples.
We were grateful for the flat grassy path along the top of the beach which had got impossibly rocky. We passed some houses and a man mending his fence, and after that the path disappeared. The beach was too difficult to walk by then, but we were separated from the road by the railway and we wondered how we were going to get across that. We were only about a mile out of Helmsdale.
We came to a stream splashing down over the rocks, and discovered it was too deep to wade. Colin said, “It’s all right, we can use these boulders as stepping stones!” as he bounded across with ease. With my lack of binocular vision and my stiff back, I am not nearly so confident in such circumstances. I slipped on some loose boulders getting down to the stream and sat down rather suddenly. I wasn’t hurt, but I had completely lost my nerve. Colin had to help me very slowly get myself over the stepping stones. We sat down on a rock the other side and ate our chocolate.
Revived a little, we carried on. But the going was very difficult by now. Thankfully we soon came across a ‘private’ level crossing, so we were able to get across the railway and walk the last half mile on the A9. The line had been very quiet, only one train had passed us all day. Well, I suppose it was Sunday.
In Helmsdale we crossed the river on a high bridge, looking down on the original bridge about a hundred yards upstream. We walked half the harbour until we came to our car.

There was a geometric design painted on one of the harbour walls, which looked a bit odd. Some youths were showing off in three cars, talking at the tops of their voices and shunting their cars backwards and forwards. We ignored them completely, and in the end they gave up and drove away with loud acceleration. Twits!

That ended Walk no.202, we shall pick up Walk no.203 next time in the harbour car park in Helmsdale. It was half past four, so the Walk had taken seven and a quarter hours. We had our tea and some caramel squares, then returned the fifty miles to our cosy cottage in Castletown.

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