“Ay up you pop-crazed youngsters, and welcome to…” the last episode before I finish LEJoG… Day 84
Day 84 pre-amble
Prelude: yesterday’s teaser… My first awareness of anyone walking from Land’s End to John o’ Groats was Ian Botham’s walk for leukaemia research in November 1985. He walked the other way in fact, something I considered briefly before abandoning the idea for weather and upfront expense reasons. He also completed it in a frankly absurd 35 days, at a pace (4mph) I never touched on any one day… So by ‘LEJoGging Botham-style’ today, all I mean is this – I walked entirely on the road.
This is only the second full-road stage in Scotland, the first being Day 80. But it was five miles longer than Day 80, and it was all on one road – the A9. Throughout, I was accompanied by Chart Music #65. There were just five minutes of the six-hour podcast left ro run when Ray came out to meet me at the Wee Hoolet’s Rest cottage in Dunbeath.
I have chosen the title and leader as a throwback to Day 23, when my introduction was all about the Chart Music podcast. But it’s not just a throwback, it’s a bookend. For CM #65 is likely to be the last episode released before I finish my walk. And, although I once said that Day 23 would be the only blog post in which I’d pay Chart Music an extened tribute, it feels right to return it to centre stage for a little encore here.
Because it’s been my most constant, reliable companion, from Somerset to Sutherland (or, more precisely, Chew Magna to Caithness). I realise from reading other LEJoG blogs that walkers like to be alert to birdsong and the sounds of nature. Sometimes I’ve done the same. But I’m a bit of a music/culture nerd, and generally I prefer some other listening pleasure. Hence those daily postscripts.
Chart Music‘s first episode was in September 2016, about 7 months before I started the walk. Its first great episode (‘Ken, Ken, Ken, Ken and Donny‘) was released in the month I started from Land’s End. I didn’t start listening until July 2018, between Days 22 and 23. But it was my default choice for every walk from then until I caught up with the podcast in late August 2018, and in September and October I’d wait for my LEJoG days before listening. By 2019 it was established as my all-time favourite podcast. As I wrote this blog to catch up with my walking during 2019, inevitably it came up as the soundtrack to day after day.
Then came the pandemic, and the rate of CM episodes slowed down while the length of each increased. So, for example, in 2018 there were 18 episodes, none of them over 4 hours. In 2020 there were just nine, usually over 6 hours each and passing 7 hours for the first time at Christmas. In 2021 there were only seven. It is churlish to complain in the circumstances – one of the regular contributors contracted Covid earlier this year and hasn’t featured since last August. But I preferred the 2018/19 format. Not only that, the pre-pandemic episodes now have an extraordinarily powerful association with that 18-month period during which I bought a house, moved back to Sheffield, went dancing most weeks and felt (for the first time in 13 years) genuinely happy and confident.
Chart Music marked its 5th anniversary on 26 September 2021. I was waiting for the bus from Inverness to Tain as I read Al’s celebration post on Twitter. In April 2022, of course, I marked the 5th anniversary of my own first steps in Land’s End (and listened to most of an episode of Chart Music). It feels inextricably linked to this crazy pursuit of mine.
I joined Twitter in March 2020 and the first words of my bio are “Hiker, dancer, pop-crazed youngster“. ‘PCY’ is from Al’s regular introduction and how CM listeners identify themselves. 90% of my time on the bird app is spent living up to that description. Mainly by devising monthly music challenges, which one regular has been kind enough to describe as “the most creative on Twitter“.
Finally, today’s episode of Chart Music (‘Dancey Reagan’, 8 July 1982) was – in my opinion – the best non-Christmas episode since the onset of the pandemic. The entire top six of that week’s chart, as well as some huge landmark songs (‘Fame’ and ‘Eye Of The Tiger’), and performances (Shalamar, Trio).
And so it’s entirely fitting that I should devote this introduction to Al, David, Sarah, Taylor, Simon and Neil. Thanks for everything – I’m really not sure I could have done this without your company. Some days it really has been just me and Chart Music versus the world (road or otherwise).
(Oh, also… J was one of the six missing initial letters. Three down, three to go…)
LEJoG Day 84 (Saturday 30 April 2022)
Helmsdale to Dunbeath (16 miles)
Cumulative: 1,220 miles
Facts: Time on walk: 4 hours 40 minutes. Average speed: 3.43 mph. Weather: Cool, cloudy, light rain/drizzle (especially near Berriedale).
Practicalities: The Bannockburn Inn doesn’t provide breakfast. The same applies to tonight’s cottage in Dunbeath, by the way. So, this week I’ve been carrying two pre-packed bags of cereal, some Marmite, peanut butter and coffee. Both places do provide milk, and of course it’s a blessing not to have to carry that around. The kitchen was very close to my room, so self-catering was no problem. Even as late as Day 84 I can have new hostelry experiences…
A second consecutive 10am deadline for checkout, so a relatively early start (by my standards).
Start: Bannockburn Inn, Helmsdale, 10am. End: Wee Hoolet’s Rest, next to Inver House, Dunbeath, 4pm.
Today’s walk can be followed entirely on the East sheet of OS Explorer 444 (linked yesterday). Just follow the A9! Inver House is the very last house before the end of the map.
Setting out from Helmsdale, I know this is going to be a plod. 16 miles on an A-road: how can it not be? But there’s a clear consensus among the ‘pioneers’ whose blogs I’ve followed. In short, the JOGT isn’t worth it between Helmsdale and Berriedale, and possibly not even between Berriedale and Dunbeath. I feel ok about it to be honest – CM helps a lot, and the pavements and verges seem more than adequate. Road-users remain remarkably accommodating to walkers – almost every vehicle makes roon if it can. And very early on, there’s an encouraging sign:
John o’ Groats 55!
I like this one, as it’s almost exactly half the distance shown on the first JoG signpost (Day 79, Cromarty Bridge).
Fairly standard road walking for the first mile or so, then after a roundabout the long pull to the Ord of Caithness begins. Other than the village of Berriedale, this is the only landmark of note on today’s stretch of the A9. It forms the border between the traditional counties of Sutherland and Caithness. And talking of landmarks – this is the last county border on LEJoG! A full list of the English and Welsh counties is included in my Day 51 post. The Scottish ones are shown in a special appendix to this post.
There’s a long stretch on a very slight downhill gradient first – below is the view towards the transmitter on a distant hill.
Creag Thoraraidh and radio mast
Where the road ‘disappears’ in the photo above, it actually bears right and the climb proper begins. It isn’t steep as such, but it’s definitely prolonged. With my heavy pack it was worth a couple of breathers. The Saturday North Coast 500 traffic began to make itself known about now, and sure enough the first sign appeared halfway up.
NC500 sign – note, I definitely hadn’t covered 5 miles since the A9 sign (so I assume this one is wrong)!
The road veers left a few hundred yards up from here, and then there’s a slight dip as it works its way around the Ord itself. Here I am approaching the wide hairpin bend in the road – from here the A9 starts to work its way back uphill towards the day’s highest point.
The A9 contouring round the Ord of Caithness (it’s a long way down over that wall)
Seaward view of The Ord, from hairpin bend
Not long after the bend comes the boundary sign:
Welcome to the last county on LEJoG (we’re a long way from Cornwall, Toto)
All of this excitement comes in the first hour of the day. I took an early break (11:15 – 11:25) in the next car park, in order to prep myslelf for inevitable anti-climax… There is very little walkers’ eye candy between here and Berriedale, it must be said. A contouring road – in itself no match for the Lakes or even Peaks – really is as good as it gets.
A couple of miles further on there’s a sign for Badbea, a village once populated by some of the unfortunate victims of the Highland Clearances. Some LEJoG bloggers have made stops here, but as ever I just wanted to get my head down and press on to Dunbeath. Also, I found the stories rather eerie and depressing, and today was grim enough.
I’ll be honest here – it seems to take forever to reach Berriedale by road. I thought we were close when I saw this sign (about halfway between Helmsdale and Dunbeath).
8 miles done (still 2 to Berriedale)
But in truth it’s only an hour and 15 minutes until you reach the “steep descent ahead” signs.
Approach to Berriedale
Berriedale lies in its own mini-valley – there’s a sharp descent and ascent whether you’re approaching from north or south. For my part, I was glad I decided to keep wearing the brace on my right knee… It’s also the ideal place to stop for lunch (12:50 – 1:35): closer to two thirds than halfway, with the opportunity to restore energy before the steepest climb of the day (and week). It was a slightly drizzly lunch, but I still feel like I got away with it weather-wise considering the latitude and time of year.
Berriedale (valley bottom)
That climb out of Berriedale really is a tester too. It looks as if the first quarter of a mile or so is the steepest. But although the road does flatten out a bit, you’re never left in any doubt that you’re still climbing. And this goes on for well over a mile. We’re still only talking about going from just above sea level to about 150m, but with a pack and 10 miles in your legs it’s not to be taken lightly.
After that is a long stretch with narrower verges. Occasionally it becomes necessary to cross over to the left side of the road for the first time. The road undulates very gently through farmland and tiny settlements. You’re also blessed with the first coastal views since Helmsdale, most of the A9 before Berriedale being too far inland.
The Caithness coast ahead, as far as Lybster (from afternoon break stop)
The narrowest verges and straightest, widest, busiest stretch of road is about a mile from Dunbeath. This was the least pleasant part of the day, especially as it started to rain again. But again, if that’s all I had to complain about in over 15 miles of road walking in Scotland in April, I think it’s been a good day.
Looking towards Dunbeath harbour from the road bridge
After the walk
As I said, I stopped to listen to the last 5 minutes of the podcast (in slight drizzle), but host Ray came out to meet me and invited me to check in. Amanda and Ray run the Wee Hoolet’s Rest, a bespoke cottage next to Inver House, ¼ mile north of Dunbeath village. This was a last-minute booking and godsend after my original accommodation in Latheronwheel (2 miles north) was cancelled with a week to go^. It was a lovely place to stay. Among the attractions: heated rooms (so nice on walking in); welcome pack with bread, biscuits and hot drinks; great shower; huge living room/kitchen; comfy bed. Wrote an effusive review in their visitor book the morning after.
The cottage is also across the road from The Bay, where I had my well-deserved evening meal of a dripping, succulent pulled pork burger.
You don’t need a Listening Pleasure Postscript as I dealt with that in the introduction 🙂
(^due to personal family circumstances of the proprietors)
Appendix: Scottish Counties of LEJoG
As promised, the full list of Scottish counties. Now, as a map-obsessed child, I grew up knowing the local government areas of 1975-96. So this is the best I can do with the traditional and modern ones after half an hour on Google…
- Roxburghshire (Days 56 to 60, interchanging with Northumberland on days 56 & 57)
- Selkirkshire (Day 60 only)
- Peeblesshire (Days 60 to 63)
- Midlothian (Days 63 to 64)
- West Lothian (Days 64 to 65)
- Lanarkshire (Days 65 to 66)
- Dunbartonshire (Days 66 to 67)
- Stirlingshire (Days 67 to 69)
- Perthshire (Day 69 only)
- Argyll and Bute (Days 69 to 73)
- Inverness-shire (Days 73 to 79)
- Ross and Cromarty (Days 79 to 81)
- Sutherland (Days 81 to 84)
- Caithness (Days 84 to 88*)
So in total that’s 16 English, 1 Welsh and 14 Scottish counties. The only ones I walked in for more than 5 days are:
- Cornwall (11 days)
- Somerset (9)
- Inverness-shire (7)
- North Yorkshire (6)
And the one-day wonders, in order of appearance:
- Lancashire (Day 42)
- Selkirkshire (Day 60)
- Perthshire (Day 69)
Picture (30 April 2022) chosen as a contrast with the dominant view of the A9,. It also illustrates the colour of the sky, whether you looked at the road or inland. Here, looking WNW from the top of the descent into Berriedale. I think the peak in the centre left of the picture is Morven, the highest point in Caithness (706m).
Next: Day 85 (1 May 2022)… in which there’s lots of downtime.