Five years, my feet hurt a lot… LEJoG Day 83

Day 83 pre-amble

Well actually, they don’t. Not right now, a week after this walk. And not during the walk either, though they did hurt a bit four days later. The heel seems a lot better this year – my weekly mileage remains down, which probably helps.

No, the truth is I’ve had the post title “Five Years, My Feet Hurt A Lot” planned for most of the last two and a half years (since entering Scotland). Most of my time on social media (read: Twitter) is spent with music obsessives, and I wouldn’t need to explain that reference to any of them. For those in need of enlightenment, it plays with a line from the refrain/outro of ‘Five Years‘ by David Bowie. The actual line is “Five years, my brain hurts a lot”. I thought this cheeky little change would be an ideal title for a post celebrating exactly five years since the start of my walk.

Because yes, my sectional LEJoG began exactly five years before this stage. On 29 April 2017 I walked from Land’s End to Zennor and celebrated with a bottle of Leffe blonde while waiting for a taxi to Penzance. And, ever since entering Scotland, it’s been my intention that I walk a stage on 29 April 2022. Conveniently, it falls on the Friday before a Bank Holiday, and as I need 4 days to reach Wick, everything fell nicely into place.

So why the title change? Well first, because the title above is more relevant to today’s walk past Dunrobin Castle. Secondly, the words in brackets reference a common name for people’s final home after retirement, and one that makes for a neat summary of where I am in relation to my own “final destination”. And finally… I’m being a bit anal 🙂 …

While catching up with Days 79-82, I looked at all of my post titles and saw that (disregarding definite and indefinite articles) six initial letters were unused. One of them, P, was used on Day 82. So I have six more days’ walking, and five more letters to use. One of those remaining five is D. D for Dunrobin (and indeed Dunroamin)…

LEJoG Day 83 (Friday 29 April 2022)

Golspie to Helmsdale (18½ miles)

Cumulative: 1,204 miles

Facts: Time on walk: 6 hours. Average speed: 3.08 mph. Weather: Cool, cloudy, occasional brightness; light rain after lunch, sunny intervals by A9/Helmsdale.

Practicalities: This was another new challenge, and not without hassle. Originally I decided to fly from Manchester to Inverness at 0950 on Thursday 28 April, relying on trains to take me the rest of the way to Golspie. This would have been my first flight for 15½ years. However, the airline moved it by 11 hours (to 2050), which was totally impractical. Thus my plans were abandoned and a refund obtained (including for the return leg, which I’ll deal with in ‘After the walk’ on Day 86).

So instead I caught a train to Edinburgh straight after work on 27 April and stayed at the same Motel One used after Day 80. Then I caught a lunchtime train to Inverness, stopped at Black Isle for pizza and beer again, and took the evening train to Golspie. The walk from the railway station was longer than I expected, and I arrived just after 9pm. Would have liked a drink, but the bar was way too busy and loud. Managed to snap the strap on my Fitbit, so I will be using best guesses/Google for mileage this week.

In the morning I just had breakfast and walked back to the spot where I finished last September.

The walk

Start: Bank of Scotland, Golspie, 10:05am. End: Bannockburn Inn, Helmsdale, 5:20pm.

Today’s walk can be followed on OS Explorer 441 (linked in Day 82 post) to just before Loth Burn. Although I forgot to bring my OS 441 and relied on the OS Maps app and the JOGT website/Walk Highlands. From the Loth Burn, use the East Sheet of OS Explorer 444 (Helmsdale and Strath of Kilodonan).

The first thing to say is that today’s headline attraction (Dunrobin Castle) comes and goes within the first half hour. After less than a mile on a grassy field path near the coast, the castle comes into view.

First sighting of Dunrobin Castle

It’s been said by virtually every LEJoG blogger and tourist guide, but Dunrobin Castle really does have a fairytale quality. The flourishes on the towers reminded me of some of the buildings I’m so used to seeing in Prague, notably the magnificent Church of Our Lady before Týn (below, from my holiday in 2016).

Dunrobin Castle obviously loves the camera, and it dominated that first half hour. There’s nothing else to draw the eye apart from the sea, and plenty of time to admire that this week!

Dunrobin Castle, set in nearby trees

A closer view of the castle walls (south-east)

The full frontal

Dunlookin at Dunrobin (retrospective after woods)

After dragging myself away from this early splendour, I followed the JOGT route through woods, emerging into open grassland. The ruin to the west here is Dun Liath brock (more about this on the WalkHighlands guide).

Dun Liath broch

I passed a walker going the other way nearby – a rare sight this far north. Soon enough comes the shoreline fence, and the first (of many) choices of walking on the inland or seaward side. Here – and on almost every subsequent occasion – I went seaward. There were too many hills inland. However small, they seemed like too much bother with my full backpack on. Yes, I forgot to say in ‘Practicalities’ – this is my first four-day walk with no baggage service since Kirk Yetholm to Edinburgh in 2020. Then, I was so pissed off with carrying an extra bag in one hand that, for this week, I decided to pack everything into my 65L pack and take the whole weight on my back. And it was a much better experience, but the weight is still around twice what I carried every day between Edinburgh and Golspie. We are most definitely not in the discomfiting realms of Barnstaple to Simonsbath. But you feel it in the shoulder, which still aches a bit a week later and has faint red markings from strap pressure. Also the small of my back has a minor friction scab.

The last two days will be completed with a 30L pack 🙂

So I proceeded along the shore until it was essential to climb a grassy dune. A steep-ish downward path returned me to the beach, but only via a fairly wide stream and a few stepping stones. This is the only way back, as other access is blocked by a deep pool at the bottom of this waterfall:

Waterfall (stony beach and stream behind me and to the left)

From here it’s not far to Brora, which more or less marks the third-way point of the walk. There’s a bit more climbing through dunes, and one last short ascent to the beach car park. Again I followed the JOGT route, which heads inland to the main road via the harbour.

Brora harbour

Main A9 road through Brora, and first break stop

Arrived here at noon and rested for half an hour. This is a typical length for a lunch stop, but I only had a snack. Partly this was to give my shoulders a break. Not only was it the first walk with a heavy pack for a while, but the only walk of significant distance I’d done this year was just the previous Sunday, for the 90th anniversary of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass. That suggested I was fitter than expected, but I did wear a brace on my right knee. Kept it for this week, and I think it helped a lot with the pack weight. Tarmac notwithstanding, the terrain between Golspie and Wick is also significantly kinder.

The other factor was giving my new Airpods a decent charge. I bought these on Tuesday 26th. The iPhone 13 I bought in November has sorted out the appalling battery drain on my old SE, which was spoiling photo opportunities and leaving me without music or podcasts on long walks. And the Airpods are the solution to the 13’s lack of a headphone jack. Once again, I may come late to obvious tech, but I get there…

This walk splits quite neatly into three sections of roughly equal mileage. Part 2 of 3 is from Brora to Loth Burn. Loth Burn looms large on the mind of anyone planning this walk, as it’s a 3-4m wide coastal stream which “may be impassable in spate conditions”. Today had been dry, so this seemed highly unlikely. But as we’ll see, it’s not to be underestimated even if not in spate.

The JOGT route soon finds its way back to Brora beach. Now the task is to find your way between the beach and the golf course. Throughout this section you are offered a choice of beach, pebbles and stones or tussocky grass. To be honest, the part of the route running past the golf course neceesitates using all three and the course at various times. And let’s not forget the occasional burn that needs to be negotiated via stepping stones. The South West Coast Path five years ago this is not.

Brora beach, passing…

…the golf course

Pebbles are one thing; undoubtedly the toughest moments are when progress is only possible using large, uneven boulders. This is especially hairy when you’re carrying a large pack and have to think about weight distribution in order to avoid a very heavy slip. Where possible my preferred terrain was the beach, specifically the sand nearest the sea which had been compacted by tides.

Further along Brora beach, but still a long way to go

After the golf course is behind you, a crucial choice presents itself. The official JOGT route takes you through a gate into a field where “there may be cattle”. I got there to see a sign warning that this is calving season and “cows may kill to protect their young”. Considered it briefly, but seeing a decent enough path on the seaward side of the fence, decided not to risk death at the stampeding feet of birthing bovines.

This was a candidate for best decision of the week. As I pushed further along the beach, it became clear that the field was a huge two-mile long enclosure containing dozens, possibly even hundreds, of cattle. I never came closer than maybe 20 yards, always separated by a fence. Yet I received the suspicious bovine stare many times, and occasionally the cows came closer to the fence and beach. Anyone who’s followed this blog will be aware of the problems posed by the Almighty Cow. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I was getting out of that enclosure without serious injury and ruined ambition at the very least.

Reaching the end of Cowland

(you may be able to see gathering cattle in the top left)

It wasn’t always possible to quicken the tempo by walking on hard sand, and so this section was quite hard on morale. I should say that overall this week was a much more positive experience, mentally, than Days 80 to 82. No-one should complain about walking on a long, Scottish beach in dry weather at low tide. And it made for lovely symmetry with Day 1. But at times I did wonder whether Loth Burn was ever going to appear.

In the end it came upon me quite quickly. I picked up a grassy path just after a headland (where a resting walker said hello) and followed an arrow which actually took me too far inland, to an impassable sheer rock between the beach and the railway bridge. Fortunately there was a stile over the fence that now separated me from the beach, and directly below was the fordable section of the burn.

Loth Burn from west side, looking north towards railway bridge

I’d long since decided that I was having lunch immediately after crossing the burn. So it was on with the waterproof trousers and straight in. Some people remove their shoes and socks, but my experience with some slippery stones in earlier burns made me wary of falling. The water was shin high – care is necessary to avoid a trip, especially as I had to carry my pack. Loth Burn is wider than I can comfortably throw a 15kg-18kg backpack, I’ll tell you that much.

Loth Burn after crossing (hard to gauge scale here but it’s about 4m across)

Lunch stop was from 2:25 – 2:55. Light rain began coming down almost immediately after I restarted. By the time I was at the caravan site between the burn and the next headland, it was heavy enough for me to put my hood up. More beach walking followed, again with the choice between tussocky grass and soft or (if lucky) compacted sand. I was really feeling the pack weight now, and any soft sand was a particularly grim trudge. I always read ahead, and it seemed that all previous bloggers had been surprised by adders in the grass during this section. So, in case I needed an extra incentive to stay on the sand…

The slow, stony interruptions were more frequent now too. So, even after the rain stopped, this was a demoralising hour or so. Took an unplanned break just after Westgarty Burn (4:00 – 4:10) to replenish my energy and enthusiasm. The last mile of coastal walking was all on grass and stones (sometimes both at once), right by the railway. The view was typified by the photo below:

Retrospective of final section before leaving coast

Shortly after this, you cross the railway at a private level crossing and then make your way to the village of Portgower. And you (re)join the unmissed A9. Now, here the JOGT route takes you on an unnecessary uphill detour through Gartymore. I’m with Dave on this one – with just 2 miles to Helmsdale, all of it flat or downhill, why stray from the road? The verges were adequate and vehicles are generally very accommodating to walkers up here. Many – where they can – give you an extra few metres room.

Approaching Helmsdale from the A9 (that’s how close the railway is)

River Helmsdale

Helmsdale church

(actually taken September 2021 – spot the difference in the sky!)

This time, a stretch of road walking was welcome after some slow going earlier today. Even so I needed five minutes when about a mile from Helmsdale. Again this was to give my shoulders some relief, more than aything else. It was easy to find the Bannockburn Inn, right on the corner of the same road as last year’s hotel. And thus ended a long, often tough but ultimately very satisfying walk.

After the walk

Dinner at the Bannockburn Inn was excellent. Not just the food, but the engaging conversation and whisky tips from hotelier Alison. Most people here are doing the North Coast 500, a newish and increasingly popular tourist route aimed primarily at motorists and hardy cyclists. Its popularity has led to some controversy regarding the economic and environmental impacts. However, the “where are you from?” map in the Bannockburn Inn’s dining room indicates the route’s global appeal, and it will be difficult to put the genie back in the bottle. For instance, two of tonight’s dinner guests (non-resident) were attractive sisters in their 20s from the east coast of America. They were an incentive for me to stay for that whisky, for sure 🙂

The only downside of the Bannockburn Inn was a shared bathroom. At 5:30am I had the misfortune to need the toilet when it was being used… and it remained locked for 20 minutes. In the end I had to use the one in the other wing.

Postscript – My Listening Pleasure

The last two-thirds of Chart Music #64, beautifully timed to finish on the stroke of lunch at Loth Burn. Quiet after that.


Picture (29 April 2022) is a close-up, cropped version of the front of Dunrobin Castle (east coast behind me).

Next: Day 84 (30 April 2022)… in which I’m LEJoGging Botham-style!

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