The penultimate episode – LEJoG Day 87
Day 87 pre-amble
Well there’s your X title sorted out. Nearly 4 years* after “kissing the arse goodbye” in Birmingham, I’m kissing the head hello. And hey – the penultimate stop on the journey from foot to head almost spells ‘Kiss’.
*This post is also published exactly 4 years after I set up the blog.
LEJoG Day 87 (Friday 3 June 2022)
Wick to Keiss (13 miles)
Cumulative: 1,253½ miles
Facts: Time on walk: 3 hours 40 minutes. Average speed: 3.55 mph. Weather: Warm, becoming very warm; almost cloudless all day. I can confirm that the final day was similar, which means 3 bad weather days in 31 days’ walking in Scotland (only one of them north of Inverness, and that a short one). That’s luck on your side.
Practicalities: Might as well try and cover everything 🙂
The final weekend of LEJoG turned into a big family trip. My mum, grandad, aunt and uncle booked an apartment in Wick for the nights of Thursday 2nd to Saturday 4th June. Mum’s friend and occasional 50FootHead commenter Rose joined them. She borrowed my car for the weekend, so I put her on the insurance and gave her a practice run in late May.
We all went to Scotland in two cars on Wednesday 1st June (in case posterity forgets, Thursday and Friday were Bank Holidays due to the Platinum Jubilee). Grandad went up with Auntie Dawn and Uncle Paul, while I drove Mam and Rose. Grandad turned 90 this year. As he’s never gone abroad, this was the furthest from home he’d been on holiday in those 90 years.
The overnight stay, to break up a 550+ mile road journey, was at the Holiday Inn Express in Perth. We arrived in late afternoon and had an evening meal at the adjoining pub. Set off for Wick at around 9:30 the following morning. The views between Perth and Inverness – particularly south of Aviemore – were so gorgeous I slightly regretted not taking the northeastern route from Edinburgh. Obviously not for long: I’d have missed the West Highland Way, which remains the best section of my walk. But it’s definitely worth investigating for a future walking holiday.
Rather than stop in a busy Inverness, we drove on to Dornoch. This proved a wise decision. The clear skies and sunny weather made it look many times more attractive than my previous visits on a grey, wet afternoon and cloudy morning. Rose had been there with family as a girl; Grandad was particularly taken by the coast and beaches. We spent a couple of hours there, exploring the town, enjoying ice-cream and a hot drink and admiring the setting.
We made good time throughout Wednesday and Thursday, reaching Dornoch around lunchtime and leaving before 3pm. The last 60-odd miles to Wick were probably the least enjoyable, with single carriageways and some stupid overtaking and speeding from impatient drivers. However, I’d walked over half of it, so was able to point out a few things to my passengers/blog readers.
Almost throughout Thursday, my car was about 10-15 minutes behind Paul’s. However, I arrived at the car park first after he missed aturn after the bridge in Wick. We had a cooked meal at home and then chilled out watching Airplane! on Netflix. On Friday morning, after breakfast at the nearby Wetherspoon’s, we took some family photos.
On the ‘wooden sofa’ opposite the Alexander Bain Wetherspoon’s, Wick
(L to R: Paul, Dawn, me, Mum, Rose – Grandad is in the flat)
I may have delayed my departure a bit too long for someone’s liking… mum was desperate to “get out of this [expletive deleted] flat” by noon. Well, to be fair, the weather was nice, and this was quite a bit later than my usual starting time.
Start: Railway station, Wick, 12:05pm. End: Junction of A99 and High Street, Keiss, 4:15pm.
This walk can be followed on OS Explorer 450 (Wick and the Flow Country, linked on Day 86) from the start, as far as the A99 around 3½ miles short of Keiss. The last hour can be followed on (drum roll, FINAL OS MAP!) OS Explorer 451, Thurso & John o’Groats.
Made my way to the railway station and followed the John o’Groats Trail route out of Wick. One of the reasons for my delay was weighing up whether or not to stick to the A99 all the way. I still hadn’t decided when I left the flat to be honest. In the end I thought the lighthouse and castle would be too good to miss, particuarly after totting up so many road miles on recent days. Also, not far short of half the day’s mileage would be on roads anyway.
This includes the first 2-3 miles from the railway station to the farmhouse at Staxigoe. It’s gentle, flat walking, typical of the outskirts of any small town. The Noss Head lighthouse and coastline are in constant view ahead, a strong visual incentive.
Noss Head lighthouse (centre left) and coast, from the edge of Staxigoe
Once past the farmhouse, you pick up a very narrow footpath, hemmed in by fences to the left (farm) and right (sheer cliffs). It’s actually a more comfortable walk than I’ve made it sound, although I can’t say I’d have fancied too many people coming in the opposite direction. The path sticks tightly to the coastline, which means some zigging and zagging. Inlets here are known as “geos”. I will have missed many of them by choosing to walk along the A99 since Portgower. Well, now’s the time to get used to geos. There are a lot on the final day especially.
The footpath hugs the coast, north of Staxigoe
The first geo on Day 87 (many bigger ones to round on Day 88)
After maybe 20 minutes of this path, you branch across the field to head directly for Noss Head lighthouse. At the time I walked, the grass was well-trodden and the route pretty clear on the ground. In any cae there’s a huge wall between you and the lighthouse, and once you make out the gate in the wall, you can’t go wrong. After passing through the gate, just head for two other gates either side of the lighthouse access road. You don’t actually get within touching distance of the lighthouse itself, but that’s better for photos anyway.
Approaching the lighthouse – the gate in the wall
Noss Head lighthouse
(First seen on the Day 86 header photo, this is as close as you come)
From Noss Head, the coast heads west (?) and even slightly south (??) before the grand northerly sweep of Sinclair’s Bay commences near Ackergill Tower. The first and main landmark on this stretch is the remains of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. The castle is also an obvious resting place. I could have taken lunch here, but I was barely 5 miles into the walk and decided to wait until I was back on the A99. Instead I had a protein bar and briefly explored the ruins, finding a nice high but shaded spot away from less energetic visitors. Set off again at 1:35, after 10 minutes.
Approaching Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe and information board
From here you continue along the coast, close to the cliff edge on a more overgrown footpath. This gives way to a short crossing of farmland, occupied by grazing sheep. Descending slightly downhill, you reach a jetty at the end of a road that heads SSW back to the A99. The official route now takes you through a field, no more than 200 yards in length, gated at either end and enclosed to the north and south. However, my route took me on a detour of about half a mile. Can you guess why, readers?
Yes, the field was full of cows, with no escape route if they took an interest. Which, with nothing else to occupy their attention, they probably would. Headed for the A99. Briefly considered joining it and using the road for the rest of the day, but that would have added close to 2 miles I think. Instead there was a convenient unclassified road which took me past Ackergill Mains and allowed me to use a path that rejoined the main route on the far side of the cow field. And that was my last brush with our docile-but-dangerous friends. Thanks for the memories Daisy.
Next was Ackergill Tower. The high wall, trees on approach and expansive grounds prevented reasonable photos until you were some distance past:
Ackergill Tower, from the far (NW) side
Shortly after this came the point where I did part company with the JOGT route. The official path winds through sand dunes and a golf course, with an alternative on the beach at low tide. My last sand/beach stretch (north of Brora) had been hard going, and that after recent rain had compacted the sand. Late May and early June had been exceptionally dry, and I really didn’t fancy several miles of loose sand underfoot. Even more off-putting was the need to ford the River Wester or (at high tide) make a long detour to the A99 anyway.
So, at the key junction (a car park near the start of the dunes), I took the narrow road south and then turned right. An appealingly direct unclassified road takes you past the buildings of Lower Reiss Farm, straight to the A99 at grid reference ND336554. Also, this is only 5-10 minutes before you need to change maps… for the very last time.
I waited until that was done before having lunch in a layby (2:50 – 3:15).
Keiss from about 3 miles distance, and Sinclair’s Bay (taken during lunch)
The rest of the journey to Keiss was a fairly uneventful trudge along the A99. Although there was no pavement, the road was perfectly straight until just before the River Wester, and verges were adequate even with cars travelling at high speed. After crossing the River Wester, there was a junction for the minor road to Lyth. From that point the road became narrower and there were no road markings for the remaining mile to Keiss. For the first time, it barely deserved to be called an A-road. In practical terms, it meant that, if traffic was coming from Wick, southbound drivers had to slow down in order to give me a wide berth.
As this was my final stretch of unpaved road-walking in the entirety of LEJoG, I want to reiterate: drivers were unfailingly polite to walkers in northern Scotland and you should not be afraid of abandoning the walking routes for the A9/A99. The only parts I chose to walk but wouldn’t necessarily recommend are Portgower to Helmsdale, the short winding section about 1 mile before Dunbeath, and maybe the rising double bend near the church shortly before Whaligoe. However, this is not even 3 miles in total out of about 45-50 (on A-roads only – all the minor roads are fine), so just take extra care in those spots.
My last signpost on the A99, at the Lyth road junction
(The road mileages were all-important for Days 83-86, but deceptive here)
I stopped my Fitbit at the junction with Keiss High Street. I’d be walking down there to the coast on Saturday morning, sticking to the JOGT route entirely for the final day.
After the walk
It was another 25 minutes walk to the B&B. This wasn’t a pleasant experience as I was desperate for the toilet. Then the check-in was a little fraught. A touring American couple, who’d passed me earlier in a classic car and asked about “hotels”, turned out to have settled on this one. I’d seen their car go up the road at least 10 minutes earlier and they were still talking to the proprietor or receptionist (behind a closed door). My bell-ringing was ignored until they’d finished. And, once I’d got into the room and used the facilities, I had no change of clothes until the family arrived about an hour later. Wasn’t in a good mood at all.
Much brighter by the time we met up again for an evening meal at Northern Sands Hotel, near Dunnet. Conversation and drinks flowed, everyone relaxed and in a pre-celebratory mood. Paul’s car was the only one in use and he dropped me off at the B&B around 10pm.
Postscript – My Listening Pleasure
The ‘Talking Sopranos‘ podcast: Season 3, Episodes 5 and 6: ‘Another Toothpick’ and ‘University’.
Picture (actually taken on the final morning, 4 June 2022) shows the sign for A Castle View, my last map, a water bottle, Keiss Castle and Sinclair’s Bay. I’m quite proud of this one and uploaded it to Twitter within minutes. It’s also the first time I got a bit emotional about finishing.
Next: Day 88 (4 June 2022)… The Series Finale.