Goodbye to 2021… One Year Left! LEJoG Day 82
Day 82 pre-amble
This was an attractive walk, and the clouds largely behaved themselves. There were golf courses at the start and near the end, hence my now rare venture into a punning post title. I look back at the 2018 posts and see that I was contriving puns almost every day!
To qualify as a worthwhile pun rather than a complete contrivance, though, the double meaning has to have some relevance to the walk. And so yes, the underlying theme of this post is why a walk which should have been enjoyable just didn’t feel very satisfying.
It’s my last walk of 2021, and I have six days planned for 2022. Then it’s over. At the time of writing, in fact, I expect to reach John o’Groats in less than two months. LEJoG should be completed four months early. I don’t really know how to feel about that at the moment. Others seem to regard it as more of an achievement than I do. Hopefully this post will give you some insights as to why that might be.
LEJoG Day 82 (Tuesday 28 September 2021)
Dornoch to Golspie (15½ miles)
Cumulative: 1,185½ miles
Facts: Time on walk: 5 hours. Average speed: 3.10 mph. Weather: Bright and breezy, sometimes warm; brief shower in afternoon.
Practicalities: Breakfast at Golspie Inn. Waited until the latest check-out time (11am) because the bus back to Dornoch wasn’t until 11:26. It was about 15 minutes late, so I started after midday. Always had in mind the time of the bus from Golspie to Helmsdale, where I was staying the night. The accommodation had been pre-booked on the expectation that I’d walk to Golspie on Monday and Helmsdale on Tuesday, of course. This left me just over 6 hours to cover what the JOGT website says is 13.8 miles.
Even allowing for my dodgy route-finding after Embo, and a minor shambles with an altered waymark later on, it wasn’t 13.8 miles. It was at least 15, and I think probably more. This is the kind of frustration that gnaws away at your enthusiasm, certainly when you’re alone in northern Scotland rather than on a National Trail. An example of ‘stuff’ you must ‘put up with’…
Start: Cathedral Square, Dornoch, 12:05pm. End: Bank of Scotland, Golspie, 5:50pm.
Today’s walk can be followed entirely on OS Explorer 441 (Lairg, Bonar Bridge and Golspie).
So far, most of the walking north of Inverness has been a bit of a grind, and visually unspectacular. The main exceptions to this rule are the long bridges (Kessock, Cromarty, Dornoch Firth). It’s especally the case when you’re neither on a bridge nor close to the coast. This takes care of most of Black Isle, the inland section after Cromarty Bridge, and everything between Alness and Dornoch apart from yesterday’s bridge crossing.
Let’s begin Day 82 on a high note then, as the first two miles of today’s walk are perhaps the loveliest so far in Scotland outside the National Trails and the approach to Edinburgh from the Pentland Hills. First, a couple of corners and an approach road away from Cathedral Square is Royal Dornoch Golf Club. Somehow, the only golf club in Scotland that’s right on the LEJoG route. And if you had to pick one, you could scarcely do better. It looked every inch the championship course it is, and I’m glad the weather misbehaved yesterday rather than today.
Royal Dornoch, from top100golfcourses.com
Feeling a little self-conscious as a lone walker, going “straight down the middle” at a very popular tee time, I didn’t even stop to take a photo. Hence the credited one above. I didn’t have to stop for any shouts of “Fore!” either, and nor did I get in anyone’s way. Sometimes golf clubs are not the friendliest of places, so I was glad that the John o’Groats Trail (JOGT) offered the option of walking along the beach for part of this first section. I chose to do so at the earliest opportunity.
For me, “Scotland at its best” must involve a mountain. But surely, a beach next to a links course is “Scotland at its second best”. I’m only sorry that the light wasn’t great for my last walking day with the old iPhone SE. As with the header photo above Loch Lomond, I don’t think my pic captures the view as I remember it.
Tentative paddlers at Dornoch beach (looking east from the golf course boundary)
I alternated between walking on the beach and on the faint path through gorse at the eastern edge of the golf course. Looking north, it was clear that in order to access the main route to Embo, I would have to return to the course itself. Before doing so I took this picture of the beach and a distant Embo House, in better light:
Dornoch beach, looking NE toward Embo House
After leaving the beach and golf course behind, there’s more level walking through fields before you come upon a large caravan park, about ¼ mile south of Embo village. I didn’t know this when I walked through it, but apparently Embo declared itself independent from the UK for one day in July 1988! The purpose was to raise money to convert the unused school into a community centre, which it achieved through issuing its own currency – the Cuddle…
Now, I’ve always prided myself on my road navigation skills, but have gone wrong as a walker more times than I care to remember. Embo was one such episode. I was following the Walk Highlands route description, as the JOGT website is insufficiently detailed. It’s ‘Stage 3’, as you leave the village and head north through tall grass, that was the issue. The kissing gate was fine, but after that there was no clear path at all, let alone JOGT markings. I followed my instinct and what trace of path I could see, but it soon became obvious that I’d wandered too far east. Relocating the actual intended path via my phone’s GPS was easy enough, but making a beeline for it involved traversing some very uneven ground and clambering over a fence.
This would have been a lot worse with a heavier pack. I felt like taking a break, but wanted to reach Loch Fleet first. Fortunately this section was a piece of cake: a long, straight walk along a disused railway line. Classic High Peak Trail stuff. UNfortunately, there was no evidence of the straightforward link between this path and the public road described in ‘Stage 4’ of the Walk Highlands route description. This meant a bit of backtracking and climbing over an unpleasantly high fence (read: about 3 feet high with some barbed wire at crotch level) in order to reach the road.
And those last two paragraphs? That’s some of the “stuff” you get sick of “putting up with” when away from National Trails. Outdated route descriptions, reliance on initiative and a little luck. All part of the “fun” I suppose, but after 82 days it’s tiresome. None of this was as soul-destroying as some of the worst days in Somerset and Herefordshire, but my soul is a bit more fragile in 2022 than 2018. Now we’re two years into a pandemic that’s changed daily life; then I was enjoying my best year since before the breakdown. That makes it my best year in the last 17. Now the blog is simply a record for me to look back on; then I had big ideas about mental health conversations, publicising it through Mind etc. Now it takes me months to write up a walk day; in 2019 I was happily banging out 3 blogs a week to catch up. You get the idea.
Anyway… a bit of easy road walking takes you to the edge of Loch Fleet Nature Reserve, an ideal place for lunch (2:10 – 2:35). And, with a bit more blue sky visible, the ideal header image for today’s post.
View across Loch Fleet, to Littleferry (a few miles south of Golspie)
I’m conscious that other LEJoG blogs give you more information about beauty spots like Loch Fleet, while I just provide links. Honestly: nature reserves and the like don’t interest me that much. In all my walking guide books, the “flora and fauna” section is the one I skip. I’m stirred by the grand view – the macro rather than micro. Sorry if that’s been an issue for any reader. Plenty of others write with much more passion about their surroundings. I guess this blog has never quite shaken off its “internal monologue” character. I think that was implicit in the original aim of combining it with mental health discussions, and that latter aspect proved self-defeating in the end. Not least because of the pandemic presenting an unforeseen challenge to mental health, which made dwelling on previous struggles feel at best self-indulgent and at worst damaging.
So, as I suggested earlier, this blog now aims no higher than being a detailed record of something I achieved in my 40s. Something for me to look back on, and perhaps for people who know me to enjoy reading. Although all positive comments from others are still warmly appreciated 🙂
I stopped close to the ruins of Skelbo Castle, but the light looking west was so poor I deleted my photo. Followed the shoreline road for a couple of miles, heading for the (dreaded?) A9. Yes, there’s another opportunity to put it off! The JOGT route bears right into trees instead, emerging only when it becomes necessary to climb the embankment and cross Loch Fleet by road. This is a shorter bridge than the ones mentioned earlier, though the views over Loch Fleet are worth savouring. Perhaps the best view comes just after the bridge, though…
The second appearance of John o’Groats on a signpost (76 miles)
33 miles closer than the first signpost before the Cromarty Bridge. The annoying thing about this sign is at the top though: ‘Golspie 4’. Part of me wishes I’d followed the road. I thought my lunch stop, about 6.5 miles in, was just short of halfway. In fact, halfway was at least a mile further on, and I was still two hours away from finishing. I knew the JOGT route wouldn’t be 4 miles, but I was expecting 5 rather than 6-plus.
I ventured into the forest shortly after the sign. Not far in I saw a waymark pointing right and stupidly followed it, even though left took me through a field and towards the railway line I needed to follow. Climbed a hill, got deeper into the forest and only turned round when I realised I was heading in the direction of Loch Fleet (i.e. backwards). Retraced my steps and worked out that some wag must have reversed the waymark. More “stuff”…
A long trudge through farmers’ fields, parallel with the railway, followed. A European couple were just ahead of me and one of the farmers helpfully pointed out where we needed to leave the path and head right, for the entrance to Balblair Wood. On the approach road, the heavens opened (briefly) for the only time all day.
Rainbow, just after the afternoon shower (looking NE toward Golspie)
Balblair Wood was a very pleasant break from the fields and roads. Stopped at a bench to take on my last energy drink. By now I’d passed 14 miles according to the Fitbit. It ran out of battery before I reached 15, and I was still two miles short of Golspie. All in all I must have walked close to 17 miles today. However I knocked a mile off for the navigational shenanigans and decided 15½ should be the maximum if the given mileage per JOGT was 13.8.
The last section of the official JOGT walk heads through Golspie Links and approaches the village via the beach or dunes. This would have made a suitably symmetrical ending to the stage. However, it was indirect, and I simply could not be arsed to walk a yard more than I had to. So the last couple of miles were on a minor road running past the links, and the main A9 through the village. Stopped at a Co-op for snacks and waited for the bus to Helmsdale.
After the walk
I hadn’t done my homework on the Helmsdale accommodation. The restaurant was closed and I ended up having a sandwich from the local Spar for an “evening meal”. Really, you have to laugh about these wild nights in or you’d get depressed. The following morning, I caught the train to Inverness (delayed by over an hour). Drove to Aviemore to join the walking group. We had a group walk on Thursday. On Friday the mountain forecast was poor so I had a day in Aviemore – the group reached the summit of Cairngorm in fine weather. On Saturday the forecast was better and I targeted Cairngorm and Ben Macdui. However the rain and (especially) wind above 900m were so atrocious I turned back on Cairngorm.
And so, 2021 was the first year since 2016 where I didn’t summit a peak over 800m.
Otherwise a good weekend!
Postscript – My Listening Pleasure
A ‘Superfan Special’ episode of Podcast Secrets of the Pharoahs took me through to lunch. Nothing after lunch.
I wrote this blog post almost seven months after the walk. Not since I caught up with 2018’s walks in July 2019 have I waited as long. This illustrates how writing has become a bit of a chore now that the blog has settled into a routine, larger scale ambitions long since abandoned. To some extent it also reflects the uninspiring locale. And, of course, the longer term impact of the pandemic has seeped into my writing. Even though I try, it feels less frivolous and optimistic. Everyone – including me – is focused on survival and retrenchment these days.
I should also probably add that, on 28 September 2021, I had avoided Covid for 18 months or more. On 14 December I tested positive early in the Omicron wave. Apart from the worst sore throat I’ve ever had, my case was mild. On 8 April 2022, while in the middle of catching up with the last few days of LEJoG, I tested positive again, a week after attending the 6Music Festival in Cardiff. This time I missed a weekend in Snowdonia with the walking group, but there were no symptoms beyond a few sniffles and coughs. An extremely mild case.
Believe me, whatever the tone of recent posts, I am grateful to be here. I am even more grateful that my family are all still here. But when your most obvious way out of unhappiness – meeting new people – now carries additional risk, it can bring back social fears and shyness I thought I’d left behind. This much I knew would happen, as early as March 2020.
A few weeks ago I saw a tweet which observed the difference between “being happy” and “being distracted from sadness”. There’s no better way to describe the difference between my mental state in 2018/19 and most of 2020-22. This applies even though you make a conscious effort every day not to slip back. And inevitably it’s reflected in the blog. I don’t even want to write about mental health as that doesn’t even qualify as a “distraction from sadness”.
Now, having said all that, all of my bloggng for Days 75 – 82 came at a time when I’d not been walking regularly. It was winter, I was protecting my foot, blah blah. Yesterday I joined the walking group in Edale for a long, hard route marking the 90th anniversary of the Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout. It’s my favourite place to walk, I know it fairly well and it was a lovely day. (Below is a photo of the Vale of Edale from Grindslow Knoll, 24 April 2022) Obviously I ended the day feeling much better, as well as more confident about my fitness for the last six days of LEJoG and a scheduled ascent of Mount Olympus in June.
So what I want to say is thi – you shouldn’t judge my state of mind from certain asides in this post. It’s been a horrible two years. It’s hard to argue otherwise even if you’ve done your damnedest (as I have) to fight despair and shut it out. But the journey isn’t over yet, and nor is LEJoG. You have to believe that the sun will shine at John o’Groats and it will all have been a worthwhile endeavour.
Some dude who was born 368 years and 1 day before the Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout said it better than I can anyway…
We must away;
Our wagon is prepared, and time revives us:
All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown;
Whate’er the course, the end is the renown.
Back in the groove: 2022, let’s do this…
Picture (28 September 2021) shows the view across Loch Fleet, from the car park/viewpoint near Skelbo Castle. In the distance across the water is Ben Bhraggie. Atop Ben Bhraggie (397m) you can make out the 100ft statue of George Leveson-Gower, first Duke of Sutherland.