Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Walk 207 -- Keiss, via Duncansby Head, to John O'Groats

Ages: Colin was 66 years and 327 days. Rosemary was 64 years and 104 days.
Weather: Still windy, but warmer and drier.
Location: Keiss to John O’Groats.
Distance: 12½ miles.
Total distance: 1857 miles.
Terrain: Rough cliff top path. Tarmacked lane. Then very rough walking across a boggy moorland for a mile or so until we picked up the vestige of a rough path. Hard going!
Tide: In when we needed it to be out.
Rivers: No.166, Burn of Freswick. No. 167, Burn of Sannick.
Ferries: None.
Piers: None.
Kissing gates: No.175 as we approached Duncansby Head, and no. 176 as we left. Nos. 177, 178 & 179 as we approached John O’Groats.
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. This morning we got up casually and drove to John O’Groats where we were pleased to find the car park was free — though the toilets weren’t! We caught a bus from the car park to Keiss, and alighted down in the village where the bus turned round. It was a short walk down to the harbour where we had parked the car yesterday.
At the end, we came to the car at John O’Groats. We were really elated that we had reached this milestone, and felt we were walking on air! We had our tea and caramel squares, then returned to our cottage in Castletown.

We were pleased that the weather seems to have improved immeasurably, lots of sunshine though still a wind. We left the harbour area in Keiss on a good path which lasted all of half a mile to Keiss Castle. 
On the way we passed a brick bunker with a turf roof, a bit more classy than the usual concrete pill boxes that were put up all round our coast during the War. Perhaps that’s why it has lasted so well, we were able to get inside and peep out at the castle ahead.
As we approached the castle we realised there was very little of it left. It hasn’t much of a history either, it was built in the early 17th century and abandoned after about a hundred years. Apparently it was never very big, and most of it has fallen into the sea. The way on was a bit confusing when we got there. We climbed round the gate in error, teetering on the edge of the cliff, then realised we shouldn’t have been there at all and had to climb back. Only after that did we see the ‘DANGER KEEP OUT’ notice on a rock. 

We thought the rocky ripple bed on the beach and the fulmars peeping round the ruined castle wall were more interesting than the castle itself.

After a good start, the path leading north from the castle got very rough. It kept between a fence and the cliff edge, and rounded every cleft right on the edge. This was a bit dodgy in some places! Several wet ditches had to be crossed, and occasionally we had to climb over a barbed wire fence. Perhaps this was the path that local man had in mind when we asked him on the bus the other day about the path between Noss Lighthouse and Ackergillshore. This path far better fits the description he gave us. However, we struggled on and got through.
The rocks we were passing were such rectangular blocks they looked as if they were man-made. A group of cormorants strutting on one of them just offshore looked as if they were on a stage!
We sat on a bank out of the wind to eat our slices of quiche, and shortly after that we came to the remains of an iron age broch. This had been built thousands of years ago out of the blocky rocks from the cliff which are so regular they look like bricks. In front of them is a ghastly monument to the Victorian archaeologist who first excavated the site, and apparently part of the ancient structures were destroyed in the building of this tribute to the man who discovered them! 
The monument, also built with the local rock which looks like bricks, has little statues on top of it and gargoyles stuck to the sides — a monstrosity!

We had a quick look around the original iron-age settlement, then moved on. The path between there and the car park was good, then it deteriorated to its former sorry state. We passed a fancy cairn, another Victorian flight of fancy we guessed, and made slow progress further north. 
We were relieved that a stream which cut across our path had been bridged by the local farmer — a nice stone arch bridge made out of the blocky stone. 

We passed rock stacks, saw (and heard) eider ducks, razorbills and fulmars which would have all been lovely if the path hadn’t been so difficult. We crossed a wet ditch with difficulty (no little stone bridge there!) and had to negotiate no less than three barbed wire fences before we got to the scant ruins of Bucholly Castle. There we sat down out of the wind to eat our lunch.
I felt depressed. I was very tired and my legs ached. I thought I had bitten off more than I could chew, and didn’t feel I had the energy to complete the day’s Walk. (It was nearly two years later that these occasional bouts of weariness which overcame me were explained by an easily treatable medical condition.) I couldn’t work out how we could cut the Walk short because the car was at John O’Groats and there were no more buses today. I was worried about the moorland ahead which we had to cross with no path marked on the map, and I was totally fed up with barbed wire fences! As I ate my sandwiches I began to feel a little brighter — perhaps I was just hungry.
Colin tried to perk me up because he knows how much this Trek means to me now. When we first started it back in 1998 it was a bit of a laugh. We didn’t take it seriously, and never thought we would get anywhere near John O’Groats. And here we are just a few miles short of that famous landmark — we can’t give up now! He suggested we climb the hill behind us to cut out a big bit of land which sticks out into the sea. So we made up a new rule: If the coast is REALLY WIGGLY and we are fatigued to the point where we may not make it, we may take a short cut to miss out some of the wiggly bits.
We climbed the rounded hill — it wasn’t too difficult — and descended to a farm alongside a field with a bull, cow and calf in it. It would have been quicker to cut across this field, but decided that it wouldn’t be wise with such a combination of animals in it! It was a relief to find that all the gates we wished to pass through opened easily (of course we carefully closed and fastened them after us) but we couldn’t find our way out of the farm. We ended up in a courtyard where a man was getting something out of the boot of his car. We apologised for intruding, and asked him how we could get down to the nearby beach. He told us the ‘stile’ was a thin piece of polythene we should find on a barbed wire fence round the corner.
Well, the polythene was there, but was absolutely useless! We managed to squeeze ourselves round the end of the fence, but we were on the wrong side of the river. The tide was in, and it was far too deep to cross. So we returned to the farm and climbed up a bank to the farm bridge. We went through a gate, and crossed the river on a track nearly ankle deep in farm pooh! From there we clambered down to the sandy beach and washed our boots in the sea.
Bliss! We were on a sandy beach, albeit that it was short. But the sand was soft and it was hard to walk. 
Then Colin said, “There’s a seal ahead!” 
Sure enough, just swimming up and humphing itself out on the sand was a single seal. 
We think it was only a youngster, and it was quite curious about us as we slowly approached. 
It kept flopping in and out of the water, then looking round at us. 
We kept a respectful distance and it didn’t seem to be spooked by us at all. 
It was as curious about us as we were about him, or her. It was a magic moment! 
Delightful! Now we know why we are doing this Trek — it’s for times like this! Colin, especially, perked up enormously, but I was still worried about the moor ahead.
At the end of the beach we climbed up a track to a ‘yellow’ road and walked along it for about half a mile. It was straight, and that was easy walking. Then we turned north on a track up to the moor. We chose this track because it was marked on the map as going further into the moor than any other, but in hindsight perhaps we should have tried a more coastal route. We went through a farm where children were playing on a trampoline (it is the Scottish school holidays this week) and set out across the moor. Well, the track was rubbish! It didn’t go nearly as far as it was marked on the map, it was very uneven, boggy and altogether extremely difficult. The so-called track completely disappeared and my worst fears were realised. We felt we were at the end of the world!
We walked for a mile across this type of terrain which was tiring and time-consuming. The going was so uneven I fell over and cricked my back. Since I have an ongoing problem with that part of my anatomy, this was potentially serious. But what could I do out there in the middle of nowhere? I took some ibuprofen and we carried on. Thankfully it calmed down and was not as serious as we had thought at first. We were worried about a ‘river’ that had appeared alongside us to the left. We looked at the map, and couldn’t see a way out except to cross it, which was impossible because it was too wide and deep. Further on it disappeared into the heather — we were so relieved!
We got to a fence, and the going was very slightly easier alongside it. Was there a vestige of a path? It was difficult to tell. This was fine whilst the fence went along in the direction we wished to travel. But then we came to another fence which joined it at right-angles, completely blocking our way. We had no choice, we HAD to climb over it — barbed wire and all! We climbed a hill, using our compass, and there was another barbed wire fence across our route in the distance. Oh no! We really have had enough of this! But, hang on a minute! There are two posts quite close together which are bigger than the other posts, and there’s no wire between them! It’s a gateway without a gate! Beyond was definitely the vestige of a track which eventually turned into a good path.
We had cracked it! Suddenly we both experienced an enormous sense of elation, and all weariness disappeared. I felt a hundred times better immediately, and all my aches and pains seemed to melt away. We were on the coast path and it was a real path! We looked back, and a very faint trail disappeared along the top of the cliffs southwards. That was when we realised we should have perhaps taken a more coastal route from that ‘yellow’ road.
The scenery was spectacular! 
There were amazing rock stacks as we approached Duncansby Head, we have never seen anything like them before. 
The path was excellent by now, and we observed the fulmars on wide rocky ledges. 
Even the wind died a little making the walking more comfortable. 
We felt good!
We could the Orkney Islands offshore, so we knew we were really north! 
We could see Duncansby Head Lighthouse ahead but it seemed to be taking a long time to get there. So we sat on a concrete construction (Second World War vintage?) to eat our chocolate, hoping that would give us the extra ‘oomph’ to finish the Walk. As we approached the lighthouse we put our new rule into practice, and followed the path straight across two small promontories to the Duncansby Head car park. 
There was only one car there — a youngish couple got out for about five minutes, then got back in and drove off. They had missed all the best views, the amazing sea stacks are about half a mile to the south but it seems few can be bothered to walk that far. Now we know why we are doing this trek, even when the going gets tough!
So — we had reached the far north-western point of mainland Britain! Goodbye North Sea! Hello Arctic Ocean! We felt so HIGH! We were walking on air! We read an information board which told us there was a footpath along the coast all the way to Old Wick Castle. You could have fooled us! We had just tried to walk it, and in places the path simply doesn’t exist. Most of the rest of it we would class as ‘challenging’! It certainly isn’t way-marked in any part of its length.
We crossed a river on the road, then took a footpath across fields to John O’Groats which is a mere mile and a half away. By then the sun was low in the sky and shining directly into our eyes. 
So we tried to look north across the water to the Orkney Islands, but we had to keep looking back to see where we were going. It wasn’t a comfortable walk.
John O’Groats is a false place made out of nothing. It is simply the end of a road. The ‘tourist tat’ shops were all closed by the time we got there, and there were only a couple of other people around both engrossed in their mobile phones. We found a notice which established we were truly at John O’Groats, then each took a picture of the other which I merged at a later date on my computer.

That ended Walk no.207, we shall pick up Walk no.208 next time in the car park at John O’Groats. It was quarter to seven, so the Walk had taken eight hours thirty-five minutes. We had our tea and caramel squares, then returned to our cottage in Castletown.


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