Thursday, May 07, 2009

Walk 211 -- Thurso to Sandside Beach

Ages: Colin was 66 years and 364 days. Rosemary was 64 years and 141 days.
Weather: Mostly sunny. It was so windy we could hardly stand up, and we were walking right into it. It was very hard going, but it wasn’t cold.
Location: Thurso to Sandside Beach.
Distance: 13½ miles.
Total distance: 1902 miles.
Terrain: Mostly main road walking, dodging the traffic. For a break we were able to divert down a farm road, traverse some grass to a stream, cross over a footbridge and ascend a grassy path to a ruined church. Then we were able to climb over a fence (someone had conveniently left a chair and a pallet so we could do this more easily) to a business park and return to the road through a wind-farm. At the end we were able to divert down another farm track to a beautiful sandy beach with big waves pounding on it — trouble was, the sand was radioactive!
Tide: Out, coming in later.
Rivers: No.171, Forss Water near the ruined chapel. No. 172, Burn of Isauld on the radioactive beach. No. 173, Sandside Burn, also on the radioactive beach.
Ferries: None.
Piers: None.
Kissing gates: No.181 in and out of the ruined chapel graveyard. No. 182 in and out of the information boards about the windfarm.
Pubs: None.
‘Historic Scotland’ properties: None.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: No.55 just out of Scrabster. A notice on a farm gate told us the track was closed until 15th May due to lambing. Since a woman farmer drew up in a Land Rover at that moment to check on the lambs, we could hardly refuse and had to divert to the road.
How we got there and back: We were staying in our caravan in Thurso. This morning Colin drove the car to Sandside Beach, near Reay, where he parked. Returning to the main road, he was supposed to catch the school bus back. But he was early and got fed up, so he thumbed a lift instead.
At the end, we arrived at the car. After partaking of tea and biscuits, we drove back to the caravan. This took some time as we got caught behind a herd of cows being moved along the road.

It was a beautifully sunny day and not cold, but the wind was gale force! The caravan was bouncing about, and we weren’t sure whether to leave it parked in the open on this seafront site or to take it to a more sheltered position. Just how much of this punishment can it stand? It is an old van, and caravans aren’t exactly robust. We couldn’t think where we could take it, so in the end we decided to risk leaving it where it was, hoping the wind would soon subside. Faint hope in Caithness! We prayed that it would still be upright on our return.
We started the Walk from the caravan, where we had wonderful views over a very blue sea. We were in Thurso on the very northern coast of Scotland. It was beautiful there!
We walked along the seafront towards Scrabster. With the wind so strong, the sea was very rough with ‘white horses’ blowing back on top of the waves. The long grass on the clifftop was laid flat in the wind.
Then we saw a seal in the water! Only a short glimpse of it before it dived, but Colin managed to take a picture.
The road to Scrabster is a dead end, so we turned off before we reached it and climbed a steep hill. We were hoping to go along a farm track which would cut off a corner and mean less main road walking. But when we got to the entrance there was a notice telling us it was closed until the 15th May due to lambing. (Under the liberal Scottish access laws, landowners are allowed to close tracks and paths temporarily if they have good reason.) As we were reading this, a Landrover drew up and a woman got out to open a nearby gate. She explained that they don’t want the lambs disturbed at this critical time as there is a danger of ‘mis-mothering’. We couldn’t argue with that, they had every right to close the track, and we had seen ‘mis-mothering’ on the last Walk where that tiny lamb was starving because it was being rejected by it’s mother.
So we had to continue along the lane to the main road, a mere mile from the caravan site though we had already walked two. As we turned into the main road, the wind hit us with full force. We could barely breathe, hardly stand up, and we were walking directly into it. It was very hard work! We did discuss abandoning the Walk today as conditions were so difficult, but the car was already at Sandside and it would have meant recovering it, then setting the Walk up another day. So we carried on — at least it wasn’t raining.
There followed several miles of car-dodging which we didn’t find at all enjoyable.
We reached Forss and were able to turn off down a farm lane, which gave us a little respite from the wind because there was a clump of trees there. Opposite the turning there was a strange sculpture, a vertical stone with a big hole in it. I expect it has some deep inner meaning, but all we could think of was, “Hey diddle diddle, there’s a hole in the middle”! But then we’re ignoramuses as far as “Art” is concerned, you ask our younger son!
It was windless bliss behind the trees, but that was short-lived because it was only a small copse. As we approached the coast it got windier, though not as bad as the main road had been.
We walked down a steep bank to the stony beach, then sat behind a ruined cottage to eat our lunch. It was quite warm there out of the wind.

We crossed the river using a footbridge and climbed up to a ruined chapel. Apparently it is the oldest chapel of its kind in Caithness and dates from the 6th century. We could clearly read an old gravestone dated 1778, more than two hundred years old. We stopped for some time, watching the waves on the sea being whipped up by the wind — we found this very exciting.

Behind the old cemetery was a windfarm, and we were hoping that we could get out on to their access road rather than retracing our steps to get back to the main road.
I had the feeling that it would all be “Hush-hush” and we wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near the place. (I was brought up in Farnborough, next-door to Aldershot, in the post-War and Cold War years when too many places were barred off with high fences and guard dogs!) But it was not at all like that, it was just that there was a wire fence with no gate in it. Then we saw a most extraordinary stile — someone had placed a pallet on its side one side of the fence and an old office chair the other. Perfect for stepping over the fence!
There didn’t seem to be anybody about, and no one took any notice of what we were doing even if they had seen us. We read the information board about the wind farm. Apparently this complex was a US Navy Commando post until 1992. Talking to our caravan site warden later, we gleaned the information that he was posted there in the 1980s, met his wife who was a local girl, and that is why he has stayed on. He was from Texas — we were able to deduce he was American as soon as he spoke to us because of his accent. When the Yanks left in 1992, the site remained derelict for ten years. Then the wind farm was built. We regained the main road about a mile on from where we had left it, and it was just as windy out there.
There followed several miles of car-dodging which we didn’t find at all enjoyable.
I got so bored I photographed the dandelions growing on the verge! We slowly topped a hill and caught our first sight of Dounreay Nuclear Power Station with its white globe. The last time we saw one like that it was at Sizewell in East Anglia. We sat on a barrel in a farm gateway for a rest — battling against the wind had made us both very tired. We commented that the traffic volume had increased, making progress difficult because we had to keep leaping into the ditch. Some of the cars pulled over if there was room, but not one slowed down as it passed us. It turned out that it was the end of a shift in Dounreay, and an awful lot of people seem to work there even though the station is supposed to be decommissioned.
We were approaching our 1900 mile spot, and I wanted a picture of the two of us with the white globe of Dounreay in the background to mark this significant milestone. But there were no pedestrians going in or out of the establishment, and we didn’t feel like hailing a car. Colin suggested we put the camera on a KEEP LEFT bollard, then take the shot using the delayed timer. So I sat on the grass in the right position, and he faffed and he faffed and he faffed as only Colin knows how! Meanwhile all these cars were driving past and the drivers must have wondered what on earth we were doing. Eventually Colin managed to take a picture with both of us in it (several came out with either him missing or falling awkwardly on the grass!) and the globe not quite hidden by road signs in the background. I got up and walked on, I’d had enough and didn’t want to wait for him any longer.
About a hundred yards further on I looked back to see if he was coming. A police car was drawn up by the bollard and Colin was being questioned closely! So I walked back. We were all ‘sweety-pie’ as we explained about our trek and the significance of 1900 miles from Bognor Regis, hoping they would realise we are just two harmless eccentrics. They didn’t seem over-bothered as we had co-operated fully with their questions on identification, though we didn’t have to as we had committed no crime. The driver even asked if we had got the photo we were after because he could take it if we liked. I thanked him and said “Yes!” even though it isn’t a very good picture when all’s said and done — I thought it would save complications. I gave him one of my blog cards — I hope he’s still reading it because I am writing about this incident more than two years later. (One day I’ll catch up with my blog!)
We continued along the road. There was less traffic now, the shift-change was over and most of the cars had driven off towards Thurso anyway. The power station seems to be the major employer in this remote area, I wonder where they’ll work when it is decommissioned. The wind seemed to have abated just a little, though it was still quite gusty. We passed some ruined buildings, and then Colin saw a curlew in a field. He managed to get a picture of it, he’s better with wildlife.
At Isauld Cottages we thankfully turned off the main road for the last time this Walk. We had to pass through several gates, one of which we had to climb over because we couldn’t get it to open. But eventually we got to the lovely Sandside Beach — which is radioactive!! A notice warned us that radioactive contamination in the form of metallic particles has been found on this beach. The radioactive particles cannot be identified by eye, and we were advised not to remove any objects or materials, including sand, stones and shells.
How’s that for a happy seaside holiday!
Outfall from Dounreay Nuclear Power Station has ruined a beautiful sandy beach in the north of Scotland. Oh! The folly of Man!
However, we needed to walk across the beach to our car. Feeling a little nervous, we set out. Normally we love walking along sandy beaches, but with this one I must admit we were both a bit tentative. There was another couple on the beach allowing their dog to pick up things in its mouth. They didn’t seem over-bothered about the radioactivity.
We had two rivers and a stream to cross, and the tide was coming in fast. I looked for what seemed to be the shallowest part of each of them, then ran across as fast as I could. Colin looked for what seemed to be the narrowest part, then took a running jump — and missed! We both got water in our boots, but mine was only a little in the back of one whereas Colin’s feet got wet through. We didn’t care — if we were going to die of radioactive poisoning, what does a wet foot matter? More than two years later, I can honestly say that we suffered no adverse effects whatsoever through walking across that beach. (Who said our ears now light up in the dark?)
We were more excited about the huge waves breaking on the beach after such a windy day. We watched them for ages. Our car was parked near the tiny harbour on the other side of the beach.
That ended Walk no.211, we shall pick up Walk no.212 next time near the harbour on Sandside Beach. It was quarter past six, so the Walk had taken eight and a quarter hours. After partaking of tea and biscuits, we drove back to the caravan in Thurso. It was still upright! And the wind had subsided somewhat so we were able to breathe more easily.

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