Thursday, March 26, 2009

Walk 205 -- Lybster to Wick

Ages: Colin was 66 years and 322 days. Rosemary was 64 years and 99 days.
Weather: Starting sunny — ending bitterly cold, extremely wet and very windy. Atrocious!
Location: Lybster to Wick.
Distance: 14½ miles.
Total distance: 1831 miles.
Terrain: Mostly walking alongside the A9 again. When we tried to go off-road we had to walk through swamps, climb barbed wire fences and fight our way through brushwood. Not good, so we went back to the road.
Tide: Don’t know — didn’t get near enough.
Rivers: No.162, Clyth Burn. No. 163, Wick River.
Ferries: None.
Piers: None.
Kissing gates: None.
Pubs: None.
‘Historic Scotland’ properties: No.21, Hill o’ Many Stanes and no.22, Cairn of Get, both of which we walked straight past.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: None.
How we got there and back: We were staying in a holiday cottage in Castletown. This morning we got up very early and drove to Wick where we parked by the river. The bus stop was in the car park, so we didn’t have far to walk to catch the bus to Lybster. It went right down into the village to collect school children, so we only had a few yards to walk to the spot where we had parked our car yesterday.
At the end, we bent the rules and walked straight into Wick to the car. This was because the weather was blowing an almighty gale and we were cold, wet and miserable. It was too wet, windy and cold even to drink our tea at the car, so we drove straight back to the cottage and had it there after we had changed into dry clothes. I got so cold it took me several days to warm up properly.

Today’s Walk will always be remembered as one of the worst we had to endure! This was because both the topography and the weather seemed to be against us. This evening I wrote in my diary, “I am beginning to question my sanity!”
It started off well. We were the only passengers on the bus until it started picking up school-children just outside Lybster, and the driver was very chatty. We told him all about our trek, and whenever he passed us during the day, driving his bus to and fro between Wick and Lybster, he gave us a cheery wave. The weather was brilliant when we alighted in Lybster within a few yards of where we parked the car yesterday. But we knew it wouldn’t last because the roads were very wet and it had been raining when we left Wick.
We passed a stretch-limo parked in the village, then turned on to a lane leading East. We hoped to cut off a loop of the main road, but we weren’t able to slice off as much of it as we would have liked. We could have turned north on a lane, but we pressed on through a farmyard hoping to cut off more of the loop. The farm dogs barked furiously at us, but they held back — probably more scared of us than we were of them! The going got muddier and there didn’t look as if there was any kind of a path further on. So we decided to quit while we were still winning and turned north. I don’t think anyone had opened that gate for years, but Colin opened it with difficulty so I didn’t have to climb over it. Then we walked up a swampy path past a ruined building to the main road.
We walked beside that main road for the next SEVEN MILES! The traffic wasn’t too heavy, but it was very fast when it did come and we had to leap off the road before it reached us each time. Quite a lot of the vehicles were lorries — and our friendly bus driver, of course, who waved every time he passed! The most dangerous situation was when traffic was coming from behind and someone decided to overtake even though we were on the road. We both wore visible vests today.
The weather was brilliantly sunny at first, but the wind was cold. Every so often we got soaked in a storm, but then we would be rewarded with a rainbow.
We tried to take an interest in whatever we were passing, but we had to keep an eye out for traffic all the time so it wasn’t very comfortable. We passed a house that used to be a post office, which had a flowerpot man sitting happily on the fence!
There was an old agricultural implement at the gate of one property we passed, and we saw some marsh marigolds in a ditch further along. The sea was never far away, but we had to stick to that wretched road because there was no path nearer the shore.
We passed a notice pointing us to the “Hill o’ Many Stanes”, a title which quite amused me. It is an ‘Historic Scotland’ site, but we didn’t have time to divert to it because we had such a long Walk ahead. Also, we didn’t come back to it on a ‘rest’ day because it wasn’t listed in our ‘Historic Scotland’ leaflet. Apparently on the site there are over 200 stones arranged in 22 fan-shaped rows running north to south. The stones are mostly small, less than a metre in height and only a few inches wide. They are thought to have had an astronomical function, but nobody really knows why they were set like that. They are very similar to the stones at Carnac in France (which we visited a few years ago) but there the stones are much bigger.
Further on we passed another ‘Historic Scotland’ site which wasn’t listed on our map or leaflet. So we took no notice of it. It is the “Cairn of Get”, a horned and chambered burial cairn of Neolithic date. What angered me most about that location was that opposite the signposted road to the “Cairn of Get” is a road to the Whaligoe Steps which were less than a quarter of a mile away from us on the road. Now I did know about them, and I wanted to visit them, but I thought they were north of Wick so we weren’t looking for them on this Walk. By the time I realised we had walked right past them, we were out of the district with no plans to come back. The Whaligoe Steps are 365 steps from the clifftop down to the shore where fishing boats used to land. The steps were cut in the 19th century so women could walk down and collect the herrings, cod, haddock or whatever, ascend the steps and then walk to Wick with their baskets to sell them. I only hope they had better weather than we had to cope with subsequently on this Walk! At least they didn’t have to dodge heavy lorries every few minutes, but life must have been very hard for them in those days. The Whaligoe Steps are not signposted from the main road and are notoriously difficult to find. We were very annoyed that we missed them.
We got a bit fed up with the weather, pouring with rain one moment and brilliantly sunny the next. Colin made a lot of fuss getting his cape off and on each time, but I ignored him — it’s just his way of making a protest.
We came to Ulbster where the main road diverts from the coast. We turned into an old quarry where we stopped out of the wind to eat our pasties. According to our recently-bought Explorer Ordnance Survey map, there is a footpath from the main road at Ulbster across to a farm called “Mains of Ulbster” where it links with a lane. It begins with a track, so we started along it. We soon came to some farm buildings where the farmer greeted us in a broad Scottish accent. He told us the path was ‘rough’ with several fences because nobody actually uses it these days. He proved to be so right! But he was friendly and helpful, and directed us the best way to go when he realised we were determined not to be put off. We were grateful for his advice.
We came to the bend in the track where the footpath was supposed to lead off — there was no vestige of it to be seen. So we climbed over the gate and tried using a mixture of our mapping skills and the advice the farmer had given us. The ground was very rough, we kept falling into holes which we couldn’t see because of the undergrowth. It was also quite boggy.
We made for the fence we knew we should be walking next to, but we seemed to get into a forest of brushwood. This was almost impenetrable, and Colin wanted to turn back. But I was absolutely resolute that I wasn’t going back to that awful road. I thought I had found a way through, realised I was standing in a bog and I seemed to be surrounded by high barbed wire fences. I was just so determined to carry on that I started climbing the fences where they met at a corner, much to Colin’s surprise. And I did get over, but with great difficulty and managed to rip a hole in my overtrousers. So Colin had to fight his way through the brushwood too, take care not to sink in the swamp and scale the awesome fence. He didn’t find it easy either, but he did it without ripping anything.
Now there was no going back! We had another fence to scale a bit further on, but this was slightly easier. The ground was still very rough and boggy, and at one point I caught my foot and fell headlong! Fortunately I had a soft, if wet, landing and Colin didn’t notice because he was still struggling over the second fence. So I picked myself up and continued on my way without even telling him. The farmer had advised us to make for the line where the dark vegetation was against the lighter vegetation on the next hill, he said, “You might find the going a bit easier there!” We didn’t. The sky had been darkening ever since we had left the main road, and it poured on us all the way up the hill. But we did eventually get to the top where we were rewarded with another rainbow. And there was the farm we were making for in the valley below us. It looked so near and easy to get to.
Our relief was short-lived. As we went further over the hill more of the valley revealed itself. Hidden in a dip, and between us and the farm, was a wide stream with no obvious crossing points. Worse — this river was flanked each side by a barbed wire fence! What is more, the sky was darkening again, a storm was obviously brewing. I was in despair!
Colin said, “Let’s walk diagonally down keeping to the left. I think I can see a broken-down bridge just past the farm buildings.” (He couldn’t really, he just said that to cheer me up!) He had a hunch that there wouldn’t be farm buildings with no way across the river, and as we got near we realised his hunch was right! We came across a grassy culvert with no barbed wire fences — we hadn’t been able to see that until we were almost on top of it.
The farm was derelict, a sad sight. The rain started up once more and it was lunchtime, so we sat in one of the buildings to eat our sandwiches. It was very cold in there, and when I get cold I get miserable. We decided NO MORE PATHS! We’d had enough of trying to follow footpaths which didn’t exist. I wished I was at home! So we upped and got going before we got too gloomy.
We had to climb over another fence to leave the farmyard, but no barbed wire was in evidence, thank goodness. The farmyard was so full of stuff, it reminded me of the building yard behind my Grandad’s house in Arundel when I was a child. (My Grandad was Clerk of Works on the Duke of Norfolk’s estate, and there was private access to the building yard from his garden. We used to play in there in the evenings after the workmen had gone home.)
We stuck to the lane which led back to the A99 after two miles. We route-marched it because we were cold and wet, and it kept raining. I only took one more photo, of a highland cow in a field we passed. Then I had to put my camera away in a waterproof bag because the rain got so heavy, and I was too cold and miserable to attempt to get it out again.
It was a further four miles along the main road to Wick. The rain had really set in by then, and got steadily heavier as the afternoon wore on. The wind howled — it always does in Caithness, I could never live there — and it was COLD! We trudged on, leaping into the side every time a vehicle appeared out of the gloom. It was particularly bad when the lorries sped by, their slipstream was like a slap in the face! We saw our friendly bus driver again, he gave us his usual cheery wave. He must have thought we were mad! I think we were! The weather got worse and worse, it was ATROCIOUS!
On the outskirts of Wick we were supposed to take a road off to the right which would bring us down to the shore near the ruins of Wick Castle. Then we were supposed to walk a couple of miles along the shore road and all round the harbour before ending up at the bridge next to the car park where we had left the car this morning. But I was on the point of sinking into hypothermia (I have never been so cold on a Walk), the rain was teeming down, we could hardly stand up in the wind which was howling, the sky was black and it was nearly dark even though it was still the middle of the afternoon. So we made up a new rule, that in adverse weather conditions we could take the shortest and quickest route to finish the Walk. That meant continuing along the main road until it hit the bridge, but at least we had a pavement now.
We came to a cemetery where the lych-gate afforded us slight shelter from the relentless rain. I joked that I had come to the right place, taken a short cut to the end of my life! We got out our chocolate in the hopes of giving ourselves more energy to complete the Walk. But my hands were so cold I found it difficult to unwrap the bar and hold it. We were both dying for the loo because of the cold.
Then Colin noticed there was a small retail park coming up on the opposite side of the road. “Homebase stores always have a toilet in the entrance!” he stated. That sounded like heaven to me! So we crossed the road and entered the store. It didn’t. But it did have toilets right at the back of the shop, proper separate Ladies and Gents too. We walked through the store in our soggy and windswept states trying (but failing) to look as if we were interested in DIY. We each disappeared into our relative conveniences. Bliss! I didn’t want to leave the hand-drier! It blew out WARM AIR!! Colin spent a long time caressing his hand-drier too! But we had to emerge eventually, and reluctantly completed the last half mile in the wind and rain.

That ended Walk no.205, we shall pick up Walk no.206 next time by the river bridge in Wick. It was twenty past four, so the Walk had taken eight hours. I wanted to go straight back to the cottage and put the fire on, but Colin was determined to have his cup of tea. I’m glad to say that he changed his mind when he opened the boot of the car and almost got blown away! He shut it quickly, got in the driving seat and made for the cottage. When we got in we had to dry everything, even our underwear. I soaked a long time in a hot bath.
It was four days before we were able to resume our Trek. The weather was terrible, rain, sleet and snow most days. We decided that March is perhaps too early in the year to be walking in northern Scotland. The next day we drove round the shore road which we should have walked. We only got out of the car to walk along a bit to look at Wick Castle. “Is that it?” I asked a girl who was walking her dog nearby. “’Fraid so!” was her reply, “It’s not much, is it?” For there was hardly one stone upon another. I didn’t even bother to take a photograph of it.
That was a miserable Walk! It was several days before I felt properly warm again.
I am beginning to question my sanity!

No comments: