#79 BLACK ISLE BENEATH BLUE SKIES

The sun continues to shine, on LEJoG Day 79

LEJoG Day 79 pre-amble

Not just the sun, but Lady Luck too. This was the thirteenth consecutive day of walking in Scotland with no rain. And the only day it did rain (very heavily) was my pre-planned rest day at the Kingshouse Hotel. Most of a long day was spent on the largely flat ‘Black Isle’, a peninsula between the Beulay and Cromarty Firths in northern Scotland. Nothing complex or clever about today’s title then. No back-references – just a bit of alliteration and colour.

LEJoG Day 79 (Wednesday 1 September 2021)

Inverness to Alness (22 miles)

Cumulative: 1,150 miles

Facts: Time on walk: 6 hours 25 minutes. Average speed: 3.43 mph. Weather: Warm or very warm all day, cloudless for most of the day, very light breeze.

Practicalities: Not great. I decided to take the opportunity for a “trip of a lifetime” on the Inverness Caledonian Sleeper train. It’s – I nearly swore there – expensive, even compared to high end sleeper trains in Europe. I am very experienced with European sleeper trains, from basic couchettes to well-equipped solo berths. You really don’t get much for your money with the Inverness Caledonian Sleeper. No beating about the bush any more, it’s scandalously overpriced. But I figured it was just the once, something to tick off, there might be nice morning scenery, and – most importantly – it meant I could start a long day around 9-9:30am. I booked a Classic Room for the night of Tuesday 31st August, ETA 8:35am on 1 September.

I took the train down to London in the morning and spent the afternoon around Waterloo and the South Bank. At Pizza Express I was given the wrong meal, then the wrong sweet, and then my card was declined (second time lucky, thankfully). This I laughed off, as ever. The sleeper train was a few minutes late boarding. Unlike with European trains, there were no onboard ticket checks. Although there were basic menus in the compartment, no-one took a breakfast order. Evening catering – of course not, understandably in the days of Covid I guess. A small Golden Syrup bar and cup of tea did arrive in the morning.

But none of this really mattered, as I expected nothing better from British trains. Everything was about practicality and convenience. Until… the train didn’t move out of Euston. There were a couple of desultory announcements about a delayed departure, both of them in the first half hour. Then, nothing, apart from one update about a faulty loco and the repair vehicle coming down from Luton. Communication was so hopeless I went on Twitter to ask what was going on and when we might be leaving. Nothing certain, so just had to sit tight and wait… and wait.

We left Euston – without a loudpseaker announcement – 2 hours and 20 minutes late. We made up no time on the journey, so arrival into Inverness was at 11am. Time advantage wiped out, already reconciled to a late arrival in Alness. Thankfully, a full refund was available for any delay over 60 minutes… although it took some persistence after my original email was ignored for 5 weeks. No I don’t recommend the Inverness Caledonian Sleeper, thanks for asking. Go to Europe instead.

Oh, and then I realised I’d failed to pack any proper hiking socks and had to buy some from Blacks. You’d think I’d be better at this after 79 days and a load of other long-distance walks, wouldn’t you 🙂

The walk

Start: End of Great Glen Way marker, outside Inverness Castle, 11:25am. End: Corner of High Street and Ardross Road, Alness, 7:05pm.

Now, I made all that fuss on Day 78 about “blazing the last trail” and saying a lachrymose goodbye to Trailblazer guide books, didn’t I? Well, although the Great Glen Way was the last National Trail, there is an unofficial trail between Inverness and my ultimate destination. It’s the John o’Groats Trail (JOGT), and it’s a coastal alternative to the more traditional road walk. The JOGT is a work in progress, and at certain points you have to ford rivers and streams (burns) or find your way through overgrown bracken. If the waterway is in spate, or if the greenery is impassable, you may have to follow diversions to the road.

It won’t surprise you to read that I have little enthusiasm for changes of plan mid-walk. Particularly as some of my stages north of Inverness are going to be around 20 miles anyway. However, the JOGT is easily the best starting point for planning this remote section of LEJoG. And fortunately the early stages don’t throw up these obstacles.

Today’s walk is a combination of the first two stages of the JOGT, i.e. Inverness to Culbokie and Culbokie to Alness. Click on the links above and you will see route maps. I adapted the routes to use roads where I thought the original route was unnecessarily convoluted, or I wasn’t sure of permissions. Therefore it was essential to also have the following maps for today’s stage:

  • OS Explorer 416 (Inverness, Loch Ness and Culloden) – linked on Day 76 and used only for the first mile today
  • OS Explorer 432 (Black Isle) – this stops about 2 miles short of Alness
  • OS Explorer 438 (Dornoch and Tain) – for the last 2 miles into Alness

That first miles through the northern suburbs of Inverness largely follows the River Ness. In fact it would be difficult to go wrong even without a map, so you could probably leave Explorer 416 at home. The highlight is Ness Bridge:

Ness Bridge, early on Day 79

The first target is the Kessock Bridge, between the Beauly and Moray Firths. Getting there involves a couple of busy road crossings and then a long loop through an industrial estate. Before that, a site of some historic interest – the remains of Oliver Cromwell’s Citadel. A blue plaque on the nearby Clock Tower gives additional information (see link, as you can’t read it from my photograph below).

The Clock Tower and blue plaque

The industrial estate is dominated by timber yards, and by the smell of timber (it could have been a lot worse for your nose, I’m sure you’ll agree). The Kessock Bridge is visible for a good 10 minutes before you actually leave the road.

View of Kessock Bridge, from the road through the timber yards

You need to be alert for a short, steep path on the opposite (right) side of the road, which takes you up a grass embankment to the south side of the Kessock Bridge. As the JOGT website informs you, this is a high bridge and “some walkers may experience unease”. I am not brilliant with heights, but felt pretty secure with the pedestrian railing and general stillness of the day. Strong winds may have been a different matter. It’s also a long bridge, about ¾ mile, so be prepared to spend quite a while up there. It’s definitely the longest bridge since the Severn Crossing on Day 24. In comparison to other notable bridges, I would say it’s less vertiginous (but much longer) than the Clifton Suspension Bridge and wider and more secure than the Pennine Way footbridge over the M62.

Views from the Kessock Bridge east across the Moray Firth

(Top: towards north side; Bottom: towards south side)

The Kessock Bridge carries you to the Black Isle, home for well over half of this stage. Now, had I arrived at Inverness Station on time, I may have tried to follow the JOGT’s route through the woods via Ord Hill. However, the road option looked much more direct and the choice wasn’t difficult to make. I did head briefly into the woods, following waymarks, emerging into a major layby on the A9. In order to reach the unclassified road north to the village of Munlochy, I had to walk along the A9 for about a mile. This was, frankly, horrible. I have huge respect and sympathy for those in earlier years who had to complete LEJoG by staying on the A9. There was a decent grass verge, thankfully, but it was busy and grim. Especially so, I think, because I’d been away from busy roads since that nasty diversion on the way to Milngavie.

Took my first break (12:45 – 1) just ten minutes along the B-road, on a verge under a hedge. A couple of puzzled looks from drivers did make me wonder what the hell I was doing there. Too late to go back on my ambition now though!

On balance I’d recommend this B-road route if you’re pressed for time and don’t mind the one mile on the A9. It’s obvious on Explorer 432 – the yellow road heading north opposite Charleston. Eventually you meet the B9161, and then cross Littlemill Bridge. There’s a sharp bend after the bridge, whkch is a little hairy. Also, you don’t always have a good verge and there will be more traffic than you’ve been accustomed to for the last 2-3 miles.

Although not even a third of the way to Alness, I was feeling the lack of a breakfast and too hungry not to stop for lunch in Munlochy. Bought it from the Co-op and sat on a bench (1:45 – 2:15). Another funny look from a man in a white van. It really must look like a strange hobby, and sure I’d rather have been abroad this summer, but realistically Covid had long since put paid to such ideas again. This was also a useful break as it was the hottest part of the day. Before this I was wearing my waterproof coat (I think) to save carrying it. Which probably explained the funny look tbh 🙂 Stashed it in my pack before setting off again.

As mentioned in yesterday’s teaser, I didn’t have a baggage service to rely on for the first time in a while. My essential gear fits comfortably into my smaller (30L) pack, so I no longer lug the 65L one around as I did during the southern stages. However, lunches, water, cans, maps, toiletries and other extras usually require carrying an additional bag in one hand. So it was today. This started to piss me off during the rest of the walk along the Black Isle. This bag is usually just too heavy to be comfortable and ignorable.

Rather than follow the JOGT’s very convoluted route through woods to the west of Munlochy, I took a short cut to the A832 and then picked up its road route due NW towards Culbokie. This is a long, straight monotonous stretch. I think I’ve been on canals that had more scenic variety. If the A9 was the lowpoint of today’s walk, this was only one rung up the ladder. I took this photo purely to illustrate what the landscape looked like for a solid 30-40 minutes (only, not always with trees and a farmhouse making things more “interesting”).

Approaching Upper Knockbain Wood, en route to Culbokie

Where the JOGT route heads east into the woods, I decided to stick to the road, just to reach Culbokie a little quicker. Again this is reasonably easy to follow on Explorer 432: the road brings you in to the village by the western side of Culbokie Wood (past Carn Mor Dun) rather than passing east of Loch Culbokie. Stopped for a break (3:50 – 4:05) by the main B9161 road. This route also gives you a splendid teaser for the views across Cromarty Firth (see paragraph below).

Easter Ross, seen from the road between Upper Knockbain and Culbokie 

All of the monotony and inconvenience was worth it though (honestly!), for the approach to Cromarty Firth. Easily today’s highlight and the obvious choice for the header image. A very pleasant and welcome descent through late summer farmland, with Cromarty Bridge in the foreground, capped off with the distant hills of Easter Ross.

Now, if I were a more obsessively pragmatic person as opposed to an aesthete, I might have chosen the picture below instead…

John o’Groats on a sign…

YES! Having completed the descent from Culbokie and rejoined the A9, there’s a special treat for all LEJoG walkers. The first appearance of John o’Groats on a road sign! This is a major psychological landmark, though I confess the impact is probably a little less dramatic on a sectional walk…

The walk across the Cromarty Firth is one to savour, even though you’re by the busy A9. I should note that it’s a wide pavement on the left hand side (with the traffic) rather than a verge on the right as endured earlier. There are so many photo opportunities. Yes, again I was very lucky with the weather and it would probably be horrible if you end up in driving rain. In future, I expect my memory will condense this walk in line with the photographs, and I’ll only recall the bridge crossings and forget the tedious bits in between.

Top to bottom:

Sign at the start of Cromarty Bridge; view west from bridge towards Easter Ross; view north east up Cromarty Firth (towards the distant North Sea); view south east back towards Culbokie

At the north end of the bridge, the A9 now follows Cromarty Firth in a NE direction. As does the LEJoG walker, for a short time. Not much has changed: the A9 is no fun if you’re not crossing a waterway. Also, bear in mind that you’re still only just about two thirds of the way between Inverness and Alness, and the best of the walk is now definitely behind you.

After the A862 junction and roundabout, walk for a few hundred yards on the left side of the road until a signed footpath takes you through a cutting and towards a railway. There is a private level crossing here and you will probably have to climb the fence at either side. It’s about four feet and wooden, so no dangers (as long as you check for trains of course).

Soon you will join the unclassified road between Dingwall (to the left, SW) and Evanton (to the right, NE, i.e. your direction). This is an easy trudge, much of it in shade, though far enough away from the parallel A9 to miss the traffic noise. Evanton itself has plenty of seating, and makes for a useful resting point if you need to steel yourself for the last 4 miles to Alness. In fact, a number of LEJoGgers stop here for the night. I wouldn’t argue with that as an option, because those last 4 miles are somewhat demoralising.

The JOGT follows a cycle route which runs alongside the B817 (which itself follows the course of the railway). It’s very easy to navigate, though you do have to change sides quite often, and traffic isn’t bad at all. This isn’t the demoralising section. That came, for me, roughly when I left Explorer 432 and joined the west sheet of Explorer 438. At this point the map says you are 2 miles from Alness. You leave the cycle track and head slightly uphill, towards a junction with the northbound B9176. I stopped here to change maps and take my last bottle of water out of the extra bag. It feels like half a mile before you rejoin the B817 that takes you all the way in to Alness. And then there’s the road sign: ‘Alness 2’. Still 2? And it’s a long, straight road with no sign of amenities. After 10 miles, fine. After 20? Ugh.

It’s probably this, and the desert/oasis syndrome, that caused me to mistake an isolated set of cottages for the onset of the built-up area. But once the residential outskirts become unmistakable, you do arrive at the town centre quite quickly. And gratefully. Much shorter walk tomorrow.

After the walk

This wasn’t great either 😉 I was staying at the Station Hotel and arrived too late for an evening meal. Not a huge surprise and I’d already spotted plenty of takeaways. My room was across the street, in a separate block. Followed the attendant, obviously itching to shower and change, got to the room, unpacked… and she came back to announce that they couldn’t find the key, so I wouldn’t be able to lock the door if I went out…

As some of my previous budget hotel experiences include returning from a night out to find a naked male stranger in my room, I wasn’t best pleased. Did not express this, in spite of having walked 20 miles and already enjoyed the “experience of a lifetime” thanks to a delayed Caledonian Sleeper… The attendant asked if I’d like to change rooms, I said yes. She went off to see what they could find for me, and in the middle of re-packing I found the room key. On the tea-tray…

Chinese takeaway in the room, eventually.

Postscript – My Listening Pleasure

Too much road walking for me to bother with headphones today.

 

Picture (1 September 2021) of Cromarty Bridge and Cromarty Firth, taken from the downhill road NW out of Culbokie, with Easter Ross as the backdrop.

Next: Day 80 (2 September 2021)… in which there isn’t much to distract me from foot pain and silent questioning.

 

 

 

 

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