Life at the extremes… LEJoG Day 86
Day 86 pre-amble
“But Arron, you’re not the end of the country yet. How can you be at the ‘end of the map’?” Allow me to explain…
A couple of days ago, I said that Ian Botham was the first LEJoG walker I became aware of, in 1985. However, for me personally, the true origins of this pursuit lie in the late 1970s. As a small child I read and wrote voraciously, then developed rapidly in arithmetic at infants’ school. The other thing I was obsessed with, and which didn’t find an outlet at school, was maps. Later this would see me doing all the navigation for family holidays (and I still refuse to use sat navs in my car, by the way).
But between the ages of 5 and 7 I would make up street maps, or try and recall car journeys on paper. Then I’d start poring over larger scale road maps. The one I remember most vividly was a small (i.e. very large scale) road atlas of Great Britain, compressed into about 40 named pages. Page 18 (where I lived) was called ‘The Peak District’. Page 19 opposite was ‘Lincolnshire and The Fens’. Other pages included ‘Snowdonia’, ‘The South Downs’, ‘The Potteries’, ‘East Anglia’, ‘The Chilterns’, ‘The Lake District’, etc. It was published by Geographia Ltd, of Fleet Street, London.
Sadly I have not been able to find this specific atlas on Google, so no linked Proustian rush today. Anyway, the point of the diversion is not to wallow in nostalgia. The point is this:
At the back of the atlas, and all subsequent atlases I ever pored over, was a supplementary information section. The main attraction of this section was always the mileage table. A list of towns and cities across the x and y axes, and a dizzying array of numbers in between, representing the distance in miles between any two of the places. Naturally, one’s eye is drawn to the extremes. What’s the smallest distance in the table (often Leeds to York, I found)? And… what’s the largest?
The largest was always the same. It’s still the same in the massive, doorstop-sized, 200-page-plus (much smaller scale) atlas I use now, more than 40 years later. The southern and northern extremes chosen for every British road atlas I’ve ever used are…
Now, Wick is of course my destination for today. But there’s something even more significant to note. I stayed in Penzance for the first two nights of LEJoG, back in April 2017 – before going to Land’s End, and after arriving at Zennor. And the plans have been laid for my finishing stretch from Wick to John o’Groats. The family will be based in Wick from 2nd – 4th June 2022, and I will be staying with them on Thursday 2nd.
So, there it is – those mileage tables may not show the real “ends of the map”, but their proxies are important for anyone crazy enough to walk from one actual extreme to the other. I like the symmetry and the callback to my first atlas. It’s also inevitable that, as you reach the last major town before John o’Groats, you look back on the first, the one closest to Land’s End. And how far you’ve come…
Answer, per my current atlas… 826 miles.
That’s the other thing I guess. All my miles between Portgower and Wick have been on the road. But overall, since Land’s End I’ve walked almost exactly 3 miles for every 2 road miles. And that’s pretty much how it’ll go in the last 2 days, between Wick and the real end of the map.
PS: The teaser reference to “burning the candle at both ends”… well, at one end is a wick, isn’t it?
PPS: ‘V’ was one of my missing initial letters. Just X and Y to go. Yes, I have a plan.
LEJoG Day 86 (Monday 2 May 2022)
Lybster to Wick (13½ miles)
Cumulative: 1,240½ miles
Facts: Time on walk: 3 hours 55 minutes. Average speed: 3.45 mph. Weather: Cool and cloudy, breezy; sun broke through in mid-afternoon.
Practicalities: Took advantage of the late check-out time (11am) by having a more leisurely breakfast. Lots of bikers doing the North Coast 500 came in around the same time. Spent some of the morning poring over my OS map and deciding whether it was worth following in the footsteps of Dave (and others) by leaving the road at Whailgoe. In the end, the pack weight and desire to finish earlier and stronger won out, and I stuck with the A99 all the way.
Start: Portland Hotel, Quatre Bras, Lybster, 10:55am. End: Railway station, Wick, 3:55pm.
Today’s walk can again be followed on OS Explorer 450 (Wick and The Flow Country), linked yesterday. It’s all A99, so detail is again unnecessary. The relevant sections of the John o’Groats Trail are here and here, should you prefer to leave the road (not recommended until Whaligoe, about 6 miles in by the A99).
Not a lot to say about the first couple of miles of Day 86. Very similar to yesterday and most of Saturday in terms of route and surroundings. Farmland, grass verges, occasional bends in the road, one long very gentle hill. Plenty of coast though – more than either of the last two days.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned this book yet. At the start of April I read a remarkably moving excerpt in the Guardian, and then bought it on the day of publication. This happened to be 28th April, so I read most of it on the trains between Edinburgh and Golspie. The author also compiled a Spotify mega-playlist, which I started listening to on the same trains. I continued with that playlist today. Amused that the first song today was ‘Hit The North‘ by The Fall.
Digressing here because my listening pleasure is more or less all I remember about the first hour. Apart from… desperately needing to urinate. I didn’t think I’d drunk any more than usual, although perhaps the extra hour in my room led to an extra coffee and maybe I drank the complimentary water bottle? Anyway, I was eventually able to stop near East Clyth, using the first unfenced, usefully overgrown patch of ground I’d spotted all morning. That took 10 minutes out of the day, at around noon.
I was about halfway to Whaligoe, or an hour away. The next section included one half-mile or so that was very reminiscent of the road between Ringinglow and Hathersage, near where I live. Fairly suddenly, the regular farmland gave way to more rugged, barren, high-sided backdrop (on the left hand side at least). I also liked this vaguely intriguing view ahead:
What’s that on the distant cliffs (centre right)? A lookout?
The long approach did little to solve this mini-mystery. The road wound and dipped, keeping the cliffs out of view the whole time. In fact I should mention that this was – very briefly – the hairiest section of road walking of the last four days. The verge all but disappeared near two bends, requiring two careful crossings and a few yards on the left hand side. Finally there was a short climb before the reveal…
Which was a bit disappointing. All I’d seen was a small church, and another building with a roof under construction:
Still, it relieved some of the boredom for a short time.
After the last bend, there was a long, straight walk into Whaligoe. I looked unsuccessfully (and half-heartedly) for the famed Whaligoe Steps. All the time I was pretty sure I wouldn’t use them anyway, as it seemed unnecessary to follow the JOGT and I wouldn’t want to climb back up to follow the road. Instead I had lunch (12:55 – 1:25) near a disused building which also acted as a useful way to conceal my second pee from road users. Might have had longer than half an hour, but sitting still was starting to feel cold.
Here I lost my internet connection for the first time, which meant I couldn’t continue with the Jude Rogers playlist. Looked for an alternative in my downloads and found the perfect solution. The 2000s were a brilliant decade for pop, and of all the 100-tracks-per-decade playlists I compiled in summer 2021, this is my favourite.
So now I had this wonderful, self-curated soundtrack driving me on, and – even better – the sun broke through the clouds quite spectacularly. It was still cool and breezy, but see below the difference in the sky:
This view (honestly) coincided with ‘Beautiful Day‘ on the playlist, so I couldn’t resist a photo!
Not long after this (2 songs) came the straightest section of the A99 so far. The playlist song seemed appropriate, as I couldn’t yet see the end of the straight…
See you at ‘The Bitter End‘ (Parts I and II)
I couldn’t reach the bitter end before having to use that convenient-looking wood for my third pee of the day. It must have been the complimentary water… I was now in the village of Thrumster, which is a fabulous word that could describe an old friend of the blog. One for whom this advice (1:32) fell on stony ground. Be thankful I only used the wood to dispense aqua vita.
As you might be able to tell, a combination of the music, sunshine and nearness to Wick had put me in the best mood of the long weekend. Once the wood was behind me, the view was dominated by Loch Hempriggs, which also takes pride of place as today’s header image. Around here are a few bends, and then it’s another long, straight section taking you almost to the outskirts of Wick. This is road walking as it should be really – none of the messiness of southern Scotland.
Took my last rest at a small bridge over a brook which runs from Loch Hempriggs to the North Sea at Wick Bay. The last couple of miles were easy and satisfying. Hadn’t checked where the JOGT stage finishes*, but decided I’d stop at the train station. Seemed fitting for the edge of the map – only Thurso has a mainline station further north in Caithness.
*right on the Wick River bridge, since you ask.
Wick railway station, 3:55pm, 2 May 2022
After the walk
Before finding my accommodation, I did a recce for the apartment where the family are staying for my final stretch in early June. MacArthur House in Wick was superb. Host Stewart was really friendly and let me have a slightly early breakfast so that I could catch my train at 0802 on Tuesday morning. Evening meal at The Alexander Bain, near the bridge and town centre. Decent burger, though the highlight was getting a pint of Leffe blonde (usually £3.69) thrown in. Bit pissed for the rest of the evening, but hell I’d earned it.
The whole weekend had gone better than I expected. A few red marks on my shoulders from the pack was a small price to pay for the success of my penultimate LEJoG holiday. Even the trains home didn’t let me down, and I got from Wick to Sheffield (via changes in Inverness, Edinburgh and Doncaster) in 11 hours and 20 minutes with no delays.
Postscript: My Listening Pleasure
As mentioned and linked above, Jude Rogers’ Spotify playlist for her book ‘The Sound of Being Human’, and my ‘Sound of the Noughties’ 100-track playlist for 2000-09.
Picture (2 May 2022) shows Loch Hempriggs, just off the A99 about 2 miles south of Wick. Wind turbines to the left – my map suggests that the small white building on the right may be the terminal or control tower at Wick Airport. (Edit: It’s actually the lighthouse I pass on Day 87 – see next post)
Next: Day 87 (3 June 2022)… in which the foundational metaphor returns.