Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Walk 210 -- Castletown to Thurso

Ages: Colin was 66 years and 363 days. Rosemary was 64 years and 140 days.
Weather: Sunny at first, but with a cold wind. Clouding over later and turning to rain.
Location: Castletown to Thurso.
Distance: 7½ miles.
Total distance: 1888½ miles.
Terrain: Tracks, firm beachsand, tarmacked lanes, boggy fields, arable field boundaries and a grassy coast path. Concrete in town – mostly flat.
Tide: Out.
Rivers: No.170, River Thurso in Thurso.
Ferries: None.
Piers: None.
Kissing gates: No.180 as we entered Thurso.
Pubs: The Central Hotel in Thurso where we drank ‘Scapa Special’.
‘Historic Scotland’ properties: None.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: None.
How we got there and back: We towed our newly acquired caravan to Thurso, all the way from Malvern taking two full days to do so. We set up last night on a caravan site in Thurso. This morning we caught a bus from Thurso to Castletown, and walked down to the harbour area.
At the end, we went to the pub in Thurso where we whiled away a couple of hours in the warm and out of the rain. Then we walked the short distance along the seafront to our caravan which is where we ended the Walk. We didn’t use the car at all today!

We have bought a caravan! We haven’t used our tent since 2006 because the summers of 2007 and 2008 were too cold and wet. So, after approximately fifty years of ‘proper’ camping, we have conceded to age and bought a caravan! It is an old one, a 1992 Elddis two-berth (it was all we could afford) but it is absolutely sound and everything in it works. Far from a draughty tent, we now have central heating, double-glazing, light-tight blinds, comfy beds, hot & cold running water, a flushing toilet, a shower, electric lights, four-burner hob, grill, oven and a large fridge which works on gas or electricity, or from the car when we're towing. For us, all this is absolute luxury, especially the internal toilet! No more wandering across a cold field in the middle of the night in the rain! We tried it out at a very local caravan site at first, then a couple of times at sites a bit further away. Colin then felt confident enough to tow it 620 miles to Thurso. This took two days, and we arrived yesterday.
We have extended our camping season into April and September, and at a stretch will now even consider March and October. It is more comfortable than a tent and cheaper than hiring a cottage. We can also move it along the coast between Walks saving long distances back to our accommodation. We are delighted with our new acquisition!
We started today’s Walk at the Castlehill flagstone works, well the ruins of it. As we approached, a woman outside the museum wished us a cheery “Good morning!” perhaps hoping we would visit the museum. We didn’t, instead we went round the ruins reading the plaques. It seems there has been a settlement here ever since the Iron Age, but the flagstone industry didn’t start until the early 19th century. At that time a certain James Traill owned vast estates in this area of Scotland. He opened a series of quarries on his land, the biggest one being here at Castlehill. He built a harbour to export the flagstones he’d had dug out of his quarry to all parts of the British Isles and further afield to South America and Australia. The streets of many a city were paved with the rock from Castlehill, and a lot of them still are. He also built the nearby town of Castletown to house his workers. The flagstone industry reached it’s peak at the beginning of the 20th century with upwards of five hundred people employed at Castlehill. But in the 1920s paving stones started to be manufactured much more cheaply from concrete. The bottom fell out of the flagstone market, and the quarry at Castlehill closed.
We got to the beach and found it was impossible to walk on. There were sloping flagstone rocks sliding about on top of each other — we could have slipped and broken an ankle in no time! So we climbed a hill at the end of the flagstone trail and saw a track stretching away into the distance. We were able to climb over a wire fence and get on to it. The track led us along the top of the beach with good views of Dunnet Head.
Further up we saw some youths reversing cars up the track. One car was stopped with the boot open and a towel was spread out to dry on it. A youth got out and went into a ruined building nearby, an old cottage with no roof. As we walked up to it we looked in — they had pitched their tent inside where it was completely protected from the wind!
We came to a wall and the track turned inland, so we went down to the beach to see what it was like. There was a strip of loose sand but we found it was firm to walk on. There were thousands of limpet shells on the sand at that point, we were crunching them under our feet.
It was quite windy and the surf was up — we do enjoy walking along next to the rolling surf. It lifts the spirits and makes us feel good.
Unfortunately the sand didn’t last. The beach turned into flagstones again, which we were surprised to find were not slippery when wet. That is why they were used to pave the cities of the world for so many years, until someone discovered how to make concrete. But here they were on a slope and loose. This made them difficult to walk on, so we went up on the grass where there was a ‘sort-of’ path which was very uneven. Not good. So we carefully stepped over a barbed wire fence (it was not high) and crossed a grass field to a gate.
From there we walked along a straight track through a farm. We noticed marsh marigolds in profusion in a ditch. In one field we saw a really tiny lamb, and thought at first it looked really sweet. Then we realised, with horror, that the reason it was so tiny was that it was starving! All the sheep in the field had two healthy lambs suckling from them. This poor little mite was bleating pitifully as it’s mother rejected it time and time again. It must have been a third lamb, and the mother could only cope with twins. Where was the shepherd to sort this out?
At the end of the track we turned right, and came out on the beach once again where there was a nice little sandy bay. There we sat down where we were shielded from the wind by a sand dune, and ate our lunch. As we ate, we lazily watched a farmer at the other side of the bay turn his cows out of a ploughed field where they shouldn’t have been.
We continued across the bay where we successfully crossed a stream without getting our feet wet. We could see it was too rocky for us to get round the next headland, so we climbed a bank and crawled under a fence where only the top strands were barbed wire. Soon we came to a locked gate, but the track was worn away leaving a huge gap so we were able to crawl under. We climbed a hill and found we were in the same field as a big white bull! But he was grazing over the other side, so we quietly made our way towards the farm where there appeared to be a gate. As we neared the buildings, we realised the gate was actually on the far side of the road. There was an electric fence on our side! Colin held up a loose post while I rolled under it, having first removed my rucksack — then I did the same for him.
We were a bit frazzled by then, and not best pleased when it started to rain. We donned overtrousers and Colin got out his infamous umbrella although it was blowing half a gale. I tried to take a photo of the bull, but found the batteries in my camera were down. Then I realised I had forgotten to pack a fresh set of batteries in my rucksack. So Colin had to take the rest of the pictures for this Walk on his camera. He moaned a lot, but he did it. He actually took some lovely pictures further on of a butterfly and a hairy caterpillar.
We trudged along the road, which was dead straight, for over a mile. Then we came to a notice which said, “DANGER shooting area”. We ignored it and carried on! (We had no desire to be shot, but it was pouring with rain out of a leaden sky and we couldn’t hear any shooting, so we assumed they all had more sense than us and had stayed in the pub this afternoon!) As we approached the ‘shooting’ buildings, which looked pretty redundant to us, we turned away from them on a track which circled down and round a field. We came to a gate into the next field, and the track disappeared. We continued downwards towards the coast. We crossed a wet ditch successfully without getting our feet wet, and our next challenge was a gate with barbed wire all across it’s top. (Something was telling us that the landowner was trying to discourage ramblers!) We were not to be beaten! We crawled under the barbed wire fence next to it as the bottom strand could be lifted high enough off the ground for us to do this. Then we followed the field boundary straight down to the coast, crossing another wet ditch and straddling another barbed wire fence when we got there.
But we were on a coast path! This stretched away eastwards as well as westwards, and we wondered whether we could have accessed it earlier. We couldn’t see how, the OS map was pretty useless. At least we now had a path all the way into Thurso. We waited until we were well past the sewage works before we sat on a wall to eat our chocolate.
From there we had good views of Thurso. There was a look-out post which stuck out on a promontory, and I stood in it to look across at our caravan on its breezy site. Not many other campers, too wet and windy I think!

The surf was good, and there were surfers out in force despite the teeming rain. They must have been perishing out there! Come to think of it, they probably didn’t notice it as they were wet enough already. It was the final day of the World Surfing Championships, apparently, with thousands of pounds worth of prize money at stake. Who cares about a little bit of wind and rain then? It looked pretty miserable but the waves were good, and that’s all that matters.
There were more ruined buildings as we approached the river, and a nice seat with a neat wall behind. Too wet to sit on it longer than a nanosecond!
We walked into Thurso, and crossed the river using a footbridge. We went out to the point on the west side of the river, but we didn’t hang about because we were pretty wet by then.
We continued along the seafront until we reached the caravan site, passing a War Memorial and diverting to a ‘real ale’ pub on the way. I seem to remember we spent an awful long time in the pub where it was warm and dry, we could read the papers and sup good beer — much more civilised than walking the coast in the rain!

That ended Walk no.210, we shall pick up Walk no.211 next time at the caravan site in Thurso. It was half past four, so the Walk had taken five hours. After we had levered ourselves out of that nice warm pub, we continued along the seafront until we reached our cosy caravan. We made a pot of tea, and felt smug that we hadn’t used the car all day.

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