You always walk alone… until The End – LEJoG Day 88
LEJoG Day 88 pre-amble
Knowing for a while that today’s post title had to begin with Y, I was originally going to call it “You Know, John o’Groats isn’t actually…”. As in, JoG isn’t actually the most northeasterly point on the island of Great Britain (Duncansby Head), or the most northerly (Dunnet Head). But as Dunnet Head is a long way away, and Duncansby Head is fittingly a crucial part of the route, this title seemed like pointless showing off. And showing off only for people who don’t already know this. Every LEJoGger already knows, and most keen hikers probably do as well.
So then I went for emotional, slightly sentimental, truth. But, as I drafted this post and wrote the words “You’ll Never”, my music-filled mind naturally wandered towards this. The next word is “Walk”, I thought, Wouldn’t that be the perfect title?
Well no. Because I did walk alone on all bar one of the 88 days (Day 39). Today was a bit special as (spoiler alert) the family were there to greet me at the finish. But really, using this song title felt corny, like a cliche, and even impertinent. After all it’s so deeply associated with Liverpool, and particularly a long campaign against injustices that were largely perpetrated in my home city (at a location less than 2 miles from where I live, in fact).
“You’ll Never Forget This” it is, then. A title which fits today’s walk, the moments with the family at the end, the whole weekend together, and of course the entire walk. I guess it’s also a message for any future LEJoGgers to heed.
LEJoG Day 88 (Saturday 4 June 2022)
Keiss to John o’Groats (14½ miles)
Cumulative AND FINAL: 1,268 MILES
Facts: Time on walk: 4 hours 30 minutes. Average speed: 3.22 mph. Weather: Very warm, but with a lovely breeze north of Freswick Bay, particularly on higher ground near the Stacks of Duncansby. About as perfect a final day as you could possibly ask for.
Final time and average speed statistics for the whole LEJoG walk (of course I kept the records, he smiled):
Time on walk: 405 hours, or 16 days and 21 hours.
Average speed: 3.13 mph.
The other stats, along with the final awards, will be included in the first Appendix on the main blog page. This will be an update of the ‘Craigs’ and ‘Charlies’ on Day 69.
Practicalities: Just breakfast really. And… everyone in the B&B decided to have it at 8am. So there was a queue in a pretty small breakfast room. Not the relaxing prep I’d hoped for. I am generally an unfussy guest., but this made me quite irritable (yes I was at the back of the queue, how did you guess?).
And then, the last packed bag, map check, accessory check and water check of LEJoG. Checked out at 10ish, took yesterday’s header image and made the 20-25 minute walk back to the ‘official’ start.
Start: Junction of A99 and High Street, Keiss, 10:30am. End: The signpost, John o’Groats, 4:20pm.
Keiss High Street is nice and short, so you’re soon on the coast. A well-marked path leaves the road to the left, with Keiss Castle your first landmark, in the middle distance. Between me and it – changing one letter – some Keiss cattle. Yes I know I said that yesterday’s detour was my last encounter with cows. I forgot this one, because there was plenty of room on the seaward side to give them the very wide berth they wanted. It just meant a few minutes’ walking on rocks and sand rather than grass.
Last of the cattle: retrospective view near Keiss
Back on the path, only one instruction is necessary – approach and pass Keiss Castle…
Approaching Keiss Castle (centre right)
Centre left is Keiss House, built to replace the castle in 1755
Keiss Castle – as close as I’ll ever get
(the ruins are dangerous and protected by a fence)
Like Dunrobin Castle, this comes very early in the stage (just over half a mile). However, I don’t think it’s a comparably dominant visual spectacle. Today is really about counting down the miles and marking the achievement – most of the obvious photo opportunities are north of Freswick Bay. That said, I still took plenty along the way. Combined with my podcast listening (Talking Sopranos S3 E7: ‘Second Opinion’), this left me short on battery for the last five miles. It was disappointing for an iPhone 13, and the only real frustration of the final day.
Crossing a farmer’s field and proceeding through the far side gate, you reach a clifftop path. This initially heads directly NE, before the first significant inlet (of many!) has to be negotiated. As trailed yesterday, these are called ‘geos’, and this one is ‘Hobbie Geo’.
It’s much easier for me to explain the geo routine with a picture guide above. I will have approached it from the grass path on the centre right, then headed inland to the point where I took the photo. Then I have to head back towards the coast on the left side. And this happens, with geos great and small, at least two dozen times on the final day. I did take some (unused) photos of much smaller ones from the earlier part of the walk. These were only notable for their far narrower and more precarious paths, but the photos didn’t really convey this.
About 10 minutes after Hobbie Geo, I took my first snack break at Mervyn Tower (11:20 – 11:30). A short walk towards the sea enables you to see both the tower and the excavations of the Iron Age Nybster broch (see pictures below).
Nybster Broch (Mervyn Tower in background)
From here it’s not far to the car park at Nybster, which is bypassed in order to round some medium-sized geos. There’s some slightly tricky navigation here, as you need to cross a stone bridge over a burn. You’re on the seaward side of a coastal fence, and the burn is definitely too wide to ford comfortably, so you need to know when to head slightly inland. The WalkHighlands gudie tells you to look out for a bungalow to the left, which marks the nearby village of Milltown. I didn’t find a path here, so ended up walking almost to the burn before taking a sharper left. The bridge isn’t difficult to find, so you won’t lose time either way.
Retrospective coastal view – Milltown 1/3 of the way down, on the right
After crossing, you head back towards the sea and clifftops, passing a stone farm building. Next comes the mighty Samuel’s Geo, the most cavernous so far:
At the apex of Samuel’s Geo
That is quite a drop, believe me – but there are steps
(apologies for depth of shadow: it was almost exactly midday)
Between Samuel’s Geo and the ruins of Bucholly Castle, the coastline runs due north, rather than the general NE/NNE direction maintained since Sinclair’s Bay. However the path is less distinct, and there are some boggy sections that are best avoided. Certainly in sub-optimal conditions this could be a depressing, messy trudge. I was very lucky with the skies above and the ground underfoot. At around 12;20 my podcast finished and I took 5 minutes to rearrange water bottles, snacks, pack weight etc. Within another few minutes I reached Kingans Geo, much wider and even more imposing than Samuel’s. Just beyond that is Bucholly Castle.
Kingans Geo and Bucholly Castle (just above centre)
And right after that is the midway fold of OS Explorer Map 451. You can now turn over and see Duncansby Head and John o’Groats…
Before that though, the natural, psychological (if not geographical or temporal) midpoint of the walk – Freswick Bay.
Freswick Bay, seen from Grey Head (where the coast heads inland to form the bay)
Once you’re past this, the map squares suggest a nice, direct northerly 5km to Duncansby Head and 2km west from there to John o’Groats. Obviously it wasn’t going to be quite that straightforward, but there’s little doubt that this will be a huge watershed for any LEJoGer on the final stretch.
Geos and a stone wall make the last ½ mile to the bay a moderate test of mental if not physical strength. But Freswick Mains, Freswick Castle and the beach are ample reward.
Freswick Mains (barns) with Freswick Castle behind
The beach at Freswick Bay (Skirza Head centre right)
You can see from the azure sky what a beautiful day it was. And here’s a beach, the only one en route between Keiss and the north coast. And I arrived at 12:50. So this was the obvious place to enjoy a leisurely lunch, right?
Unfortunately it was also the time I realised my phone battery was already below 30%, and I needed it in order to arrange the grand finale with the family. Annoyingly, this meant I would probably be so low on battery by Duncansby Head that I would have to ration photos for the triumphant parade into John o’Groats. Time would also be a factor, as battery % was falling even when inactive. So I only stayed on the beach for 5 minutes.
For as long as I’d been planning the walk, the JOGT site showed a red alert for a route closure between Freswick and Skirza Harbour. Sure enough, on leaving the beach there was a sign pointing out the short road detour. This is one reason why my final stage was 1 mile longer than the official site’s 13½ miles. The other was probably my line of attack north of Skirza Head (see below).
Retrospective of Freswick Bay, about 200m north of Skirza Head
The route between harbour and headland wasn’t especially taxing, but the cliffs here are at their most precipitous. Once round the headland, the illusion of a nice straight 5km walk to Duncansby is quickly shattered. Farmland on your left squeezes you onto a narrow, tussocky path. Rushy Geo and Long Geo are time-consuming obstacles (especially the latter), and some of the walking in between geos is also very convoluted. After Long Geo there is a quarry, where you lose sufficient height to obscure your view of the sea. It’s quite disconcerting on a coastal walk!
The quarry path is also a twister and turner, and for the first time I got a bit fed up. Thought I’d better give the family an ETA so they could be there to greet me in John o’Groats. I also mentioned the battery issue and asked for them not to text or call in case it drained more quickly. They’d not long got back to Wick after visiting Dunnet Head, and seemed slightly unprepared for going out again. So I decided I would take a few more breaks than normal this afternoon, to give them more time.
But… definitely not yet. I was determined to reach today’s main landmark, the Stacks of Duncansby, without making a stop. Largely because it’d help me get there in time to take photos before the battery ran out. Having returned to the clifftop after the quarry diversion, I found it hard to discern an obvious path. The best thing to do (as per the WalkHighlands guidancxe) is to follow a faint one on the ground which heads for the eastern end of a huge geo. This means passing some of the boggiest land of the entire stage. Again a reminder that I was very lucky with conditions underfoot.
Wife Geo, seen from its inland apex
The massive geo in the way is ‘Wife Geo’. It reaches almost as far inland as Long Geo, but is considerably wider. Wide enough, in fact, to house a giant stack of its own (middle of the picture) as well two natural arches (behind the stack, closer to the sea).
At the next one, Fast Geo, I noticed other northbound walkers for the first time all day. One, who I’d first seen from the far side of Wife Geo, seemed to have found a clear path a few hundred metres inland. I wondered if I’d wandered too close to the coast when coming out of the quarry and following the faint path through the bog. It didn’t matter, but I’m guessing this (along with the Skirza detour) is why my mileage was 14½ today and not 13½.
He was making good progress anyway, and was easy to follow on the lovely path north of Fast Geo, from Red Creek via Striding Man to Burnt Hill. This was open moorland, slightly rising, very much like the lower traverses of the Peaks (only with coastal views and a sea breeze) and did wonders for morale. What’s more, from Burnt Hill the Stacks of Duncansby come into view. It really feels like nothing can stop you now.
Somewhere near the Hill of Crogodale, the gentleman stopped to talk to an older couple heading south, and I passed them at speed. By now I was just looking for a suitable spot to have lunch and photograph the Stacks. Sent my last text to the family, saying I was aiming to take it very easy on their behalf and wouldn’t arrive at John o’Groats until 4pm at the earliest. Stopped at 2:35 and hung around for 25 minutes. The battery went below 5% so I stopped taking photos. My last ones are below; any others between here and the signpost are borrowed or were taken by family members at the end.
The Stacks of Duncansby, taken a few minutes before my lunch stop
(Duncansby Head lighthouse just visible on the headland behind)
Stacks of Duncansby, from lunch stop
Official photo of the Stacks of Duncansby, from walkhighlands.co.uk
WalkHighlands calls the Stacks “perhaps the true climax of the John o’Groats Trail”. I can see what they mean, but I defy anyone who’s walked 1,000+ miles from Land’s End (whatever their route) to feel the same way when they’re this close to the real finish.
Anyway, from here on out there are a lot more people around. A reminder that Duncansby Head is the true north-eastern point of mainland Britain. There’s a lighthouse to see, and a very convenient car park at the end of a two-mile track from John o’Groats. Even the most casual of walkers can make their way a short distance south to this point.
For those heading north like me, there’s a rare and pleasing dip and rise before you cross the field below the lighthouse. This takes you past (sob!) the very last geo – the Geo of Sclaites. It also serves as a belated reminder of the vast difference in coastal walking between Cornwall’s South West Coast Path and Caithness’s John o’Groats Trail. There, the dips to sea level and steep rises back to the cliff top are ever-present. Here there are no knee-shaking or lung-busting steps en route, just a constant zig-zag in and out. There is no doubt the SWCP is more testing. But LEJoG remains more popular than JoGLE – perhaps we’re masochists?
Given my delaying tactics on behalf of the welcome party, it would have made sense to spend longer exploring the lighthouse. But…
Duncansby Head Lighthouse (close-up from wikipedia.org)
Duncansby Head Lighthouse (aerial view from northlinkferries.co.uk)
…from Duncansby Head, you can see the finish. Metaphorically, of course you can smell and taste it too. The westward turn at Duncansby Head car park is a moment to cherish. Metaphorically, it’s like heading downhill after the climb of your life. What follows is among the most enjoyable two miles in northern Scotland. A very clear path along grass soon brings you to miniature ‘cliffs’ overlooking the Bay of Sannick. And, unless it’s pouring with rain, you are not going to be able to resist Sannick Beach.
It’s easy to drop down from one of the mini-cliffs, making your way carefully down the dunes to a lovely expanse of north coast sand. I stopped at 3:30 and stayed for 20 minutes. Removed my boots and socks and converted my trousers into shorts, so that I could treat myself to a quick paddle in the sea. Yes, it was bloody cold.
Ten minutes further along is another smaller beach, the Ness of Duncansby. I stayed here for 15 minutes – no paddling this time as you’re now looking at the notoriously rough Pentland Firth. Really I was waiting for the OK from the family, to say they were ready to greet me and take photos.
Once I received the text, it was time for the last five minutes of my Land’s End to John o’Groats walk. Paul appeared a few hundred yards ahead of me, checking I was nearly there before turning back. At 4:20pm I was no longer alone, hearing the cheers and applause of five people as I approached the signpost. I smiled and acknowledged them, but for that few seconds had only one target in mind.
I touched the official signpost at John o’Groats, and after 5 years, 5 weeks and 1 day that was it.
After the walk
There was a lot of hugging. I kept saying “Thank you for coming” and briefly felt emotional. Although to be honest I didn’t have any momentous sense of achievement. I was glad everyone was there, just to give the moment some meaning. After all, to arrive alone and touch the signpost would mean nothing to a bunch of strangers. I did, momentarily, wonder if it was worth all the money and effort. But it wasn’t the time to dwell on these thoughts (the forthcoming Appendix 2 will do that job).
I’d seen and done so much that I never would have otherwise, my family were with me and it was time to celebrate.
A champagne – well, cava – moment (Grandad in background)
As you can see from the header image, the family had bought matching T-shirts and balloons as well as fizzy alcoholic drinks. My best guess for the final mileage was the 1,253½ to Keiss, plus 13.6 as per the JOGT Trail guide for today. This came to 1,267. Sure enough, in the photo you can see, L to R:
- Mum holding a ‘1’ balloon
- Rose with a (wonky) ‘2’
- Yours truly, touching the sign
- Dawn with a ‘6’
- and Grandad with a ‘7’
Officially though, per Fitbit I walked an extra mile today (as referred to in the main text) and 1,268 will be recorded on the blog. Still, these balloons kept their sentimental value afterwards and are still in my pantry even though they’ve long since deflated!
Thanks to the very kind people who allowed us to monopolise the sign for a few minutes so the photos could be taken. In particular to the gentleman who took the header image and the first one below:
Another version of the header image, taken by the same kind soul
Rose’s photo of family with balloons
(Paul 1, Mum 2, Dawn 6, Grandad 7)
The photos I will probably treasure for longest are these, with individual family members.
With mother (2)
With Dawn and Paul
I just wish everyone had been able to make it though.
After the photos we had a hot drink in a nearby cafe, and then there was a long wait for the evening meal as no-one wanted to go back to Wick in order to come out again. I was spared some of that wait, as I had to check in at my final accommodation, the thoroughly excellent Anchorage B&B. It was a fair way along the road to Duncansby Head. Gail, the proprietor, was amazing. Offered a tipple of whisky and free can of lager almost as soon as I walked through the door; and the room was huge and luxurious. A perfect end to a perfect day really.
Paul picked me up ready for the 7:30 evening meal at the Northern Point restaurant. This was a wonderful eveniing of laughs and flowing conversation, with some great food and drinks. It really did feel like a celebration of something momentous. I wish I could remember what I ate – I assume it was a special as the menus on the website don’t ring a bell. Paul drove me back to the Anchorage afterwards. I stayed up quite late with Jubilee coverage (and later the radio) on in the background. Think I was just wanting to squeeze every last moment out of 4th June 2022.
The days after
Sunday 5 June
Had a huge, fantastic breakfast and set off to pick Mum and Rose up from Wick for 9:30am. We were about ten minutes behind Paul, Dawn and Grandad. Drove to Edinburgh, again (as with Perth when heading north) to ‘break the back’ of the two-day journey on day one. Other than some very slow traffic near the Kessock Bridge and later Perth, it was a smooth journey.
We stopped in Aviemore around lunchtime. It was probably too hot for Grandad, and things weren’t helped by the restaurant/pub we visited operating a crazy policy of making you buy soft drinks and coffee from the downstairs bar. Had an ice cream but no-one bothered about a proper lunch. Evereyone thought the place itself was lovely though.
Stayed at the Premier Inn Musselburgh, near the A1 on the eastern side of the city. Rose’s husband – also called Paul – joined us for the evening meal.
Monday 6 June
The three of us set off slightly ahead of Paul. However we stopped to use the toilet somewhere round Newcastle, and were about 15 minutes behind when we hit the A1 again. I got the others to pretend (via text) that we were still ahead of them, just to amuse myself during a long journey. The scheme collapsed when we arranged to meet them at Wetherby services though.
For the last 20 minutes or so, from Wetherby to Woolley Edge, Grandad swapped with Mum and Rose. So it was just me and my grandfather in the car, which was a lovely way to end a special long weekend. He’s the one who keeps saying I should turn this blog into a book. It’s not the way these things work any more, Grandad… and it’s way too long anyway!
We parted shortly after 2pm. As I was leaving the motorway at J36, everyone else piled into Paul’s car. Home around 3, clutching my balloons. And clutching at memories that should last a lifetime.
Picture (4 June 2022) shows Mum, Grandad, Dawn, Paul and Rose with me at the John o’Groats signpost, as described in the text. Taken by Kind Stranger, Esq. on Mum or Dawn’s phone (not sure which, I received several copies).
Appendix 1: The Final LEJoG Awards!
and Appendix 2: Apo-Blog-ia, a review of the experience of writing and blogging, and why the blog didn’t turn out as I originally intended (Clue: a five-letter word with a numerical suffix).