Day 82: The End
Wick to John o'Groats. 22.3 miles. Total walk length: 1268.9 miles.
I did it.
At just after 3pm I rounded Duncansby Head – the furthest point on the British mainland from Land’s End – and an hour later I reached the end of my road, John o’Groats.
The village's claim to fame is an accident of location: it's where an enterprising dutchman by the name of Jan de Groot was commissioned by James IV to operate a ferry to Orkney. The price of a ferry ride was one groat. Today it's just a collection of whitewashed cottages, expensive tourist shops and a campsite around a harbour from which ferries still leave for Orkney
But that’s a sideshow. All I cared about was touching that sign.
82 days, 1268.9 miles and 150 or so Tunnocks Wafers since I left Land’s End on a miserable mid May evening I have reached the other end of the country.
Not only did I walk 500 miles. I walked 500 more. And then 270 more again. And now I’m done.
Before celebrating and reflecting, there was today’s walk – which was, fittingly, a great send-off.
The A99 continues. By this stage there are few houses about.
The day starts like every walking day has started since I left Land’s End.
My electronics get packed into the green drybag. Wash kit, towel and first aid stuff into the orange drybag. And clothes into the black one. The laptop gets two drybags. Then everything is loaded into the backpack, with my camera and phone placed in pouches either side of the waistbelt like ramblers’ weapons. Finally, I fill up my water bottles.
I do a last check of the room (uncharacteristically, the only things I’ve lost on my walk are a pair of gaiters and a map of half the Pennine Way), then it’s boots on and boot up both Strava and the OS App that has guided me from Day 1, and onto the trail one last time.
It’s strange. Despite hobbling down to breakfast, the moment my boots are on my legs are ready and eager to be moving. Today more so than ever.
At Reiss the A99 takes a sharp right for its final 13 (13!!!) miles.
Philip, the German I met in Kinlochleven back on Day 70, had a thing about music fading out.
He hated songs that faded to silence rather than carrying on to a defined and satisfactory end.
While I don't buy that for songs, with LeJog I couldn't agree more. Having experienced some of the highs of the John o'Groats Trail there was no chance I was going to finish my journey tarmac-treading the A99. So I checked the maps and the status of the clifftop route and decided I'd do what I did yesterday; clock up a few miles along the road then head onto the coast path to end my trip.
As it turned out even the road walking was quite fun.
More and more abandoned farms and crofts around the A99.
It's cold. It's windy and there's rain in the air, just like it was when I set off. I unpack a jumper for the first time in weeks.
Then it's on through the colourless suburbs of Wick to a huge out-of-town Tesco to buy lunch.
The cashier asks me if I'm heading north or south – there's only one reason a backpacker's walking along the A99. North, I tell her. She smiles.
It is to be a prelude. As the landscape flattens to Flows and the skies open up and the few homes and farms left become ever more isolated, car, van and lorry drivers add their support too. Not only are they pulling away to give you a wide berth on the home straight, there are honking horns, thumbs going up and a few cheers from drivers as they will you along the final miles.
I find myself getting emotional. But now's not the time. It's a busy road that requires concentration. And there are still 12 miles left – though by now even a 20 mile day isn't a big ask.
A mile or so before Keiss you pass over the this narrow gauge railway, part of the Wick Fabrication Site that is used to build oil and gas pipelines. Note that it's along here that LeJogers following Andy Robinson's inland route join the coast path. (Robinson is now writing a guide to the JoG Trail). The river on the right is the River of Wester, which after heavy rain can provide an unfordable obstacle on the Wick > Keiss section of the JoG Trail – part of the reason I gave that part a miss today.
Where I quit the A99 to head towards Sinclair's Bay.
At Keiss I leave the road and drivers and join the John 'Groats Trail.
It is, yet again, a joy. There are pristine beaches that I have to myself. There are cliffs and sea stacks and caves. There are castles and brochs and standing stones. And always the company of seabirds.
The names I love. I pass Striding Man, Skippie Geo, Seal Skerry, Lobster Rocks and the Hill of Crogodale.
As I round Salt Skerry my heart sinks for a moment; the GPS says just four miles left yet the distant cliffs ahead suggest much further. Then I realise I'm now seeing the Orkney Islands for the first time.
As ever the John o'Groats Trail doesn't surrender its rewards without work. It is boggy, there are barbed wire fences to cross, there are nettle thickets to negotiate and at one point the fording of a stream high above the cliffs on which a false step might have made for an unfortunate end.
But that's all part of the Trail's wild charm. It is a superlative long distance trail. And while some stages are – in my view anyway – currently unwalkable, when that changes, or in spring when the undergrowth dies back, it will make for a long distance trail filled with adventure, wildlife, staggering and varied coastal scenery and a bounty of cultural and historical interest. Hats off to Jay and the team for pulling it all together: they have a big job ahead, but a worthwhile one.
To any LeJogger weighing its merits against the A9/A99 I would say this: check the status of each stage of the Trail, read what other LeJogers have written, and then give it a go. You won't regret it.
The sands and dunes of Sinclair's Bay from the clifftop village of Keiss. Like many of the beaches around here Keiss Beach is littered with concrete anti tank blocks, placed in anticipation of a possible German invasion following Norway's occupation in 1940. There are also dozens of small forts and lookout posts along the coast.
This house had a well maintained three-hole golf course in its garden.
The highlights continue until the very end. The Stacks of Duncansby – a succession of razor-sharp rock towers along the northeasternmost tip of the country – rival anything I've seen since leaving Land's End. Then, more as a box ticking exercise, I continue to Duncansby Head and around the Bay of Yannick, and Ness of Duncansby before heading into John o'Groats.
There are plenty of tourists, but no fanfare or other LeJogers around as I finally touch the infamous sign. I ask someone to take my photo then, with no pub to go to, I celebrate with tea and a scone.
Keiss Castle, standing at the north end of Sinclair's Bay. It was already going to ruin as long ago as 1700. One day it will fall into the sea.
The cliffs gain height.
The castle is magnificent.
There will be time for me to reflect on LeJog over the coming weeks. Although the large pile of work awaiting me may decide otherwise.
For now it’s enough to say my long walk was all I hoped for and more.
I set off with a few goals in mind.
I wanted to see more of the country.
Not just the best of it – but the good, the bad, the ugly, the extraordinary, the depressing, the breathtaking, the eye-opening and, this being Britain, the eccentric.
As it transpired, the good far outweighed the bad. The Britain I've seen really is a green and pleasant land with beauty, both manmade and wild, around every corner.
Journeying by foot I was able to weave the country together, giving context to the town and countryside, and to watch as moors became mountains, cliffs dropped to sands, industry transitioned to pasture. LeJog has been an 11-week blitz course in British culture, history and ecology.
I wanted to check out as much traditional music as I could. Which I did. And drink local ales. Which I got bored of shortly after leaving the Pennines. Fortunately as I crossed the border the equivalent of local ale became Tennents lager – so I've been a happy man ever since.
Most of all I wanted an adventure. And it delivered that a hundred times over. An adventure that engaged from start to finish.
The coastline is dotted with brochs – rounded iron age towers built more than 2,000 years ago that were probably the centrepiece of communities (their purpose is still being debated). Caithness is so rich in archaeological sites that many have not been explored.
Alongside Nybster Broch is Mervyn's Tower, a folly built by the archaeologist Sir Francis Tress Barry, then excavating the broch, to commemorate his nephew. The sandstone animals and boy are carved by John Nicholson. On the back is a plaque reading 'Festina Lente', which translates as 'Make Haste Slowly',
Hidden coves and harbours.
But the few lows were far outweighed by moments of magic and discovery. I listed my highlights yesterday but there are dozens of also-rans. Such is the pace of the walk that even tough days are soon forgotten as you enter pastures and valleys new.
It was a walk of discovery.
First Cornwall – that got me off to the best of starts with blue skies day after day and wildflowers colouring fine cliff scenery. I still can’t believe that the bluebells were out when I set off.
Then towns and villages I would happily have stayed in for longer: lovely Boscastle, charming Glastonbury. And how was it I’d never heard of Malham Cove, or Gordale Scar, or all 270-miles of the Scottish Southern Uplands?
Nor had I expected the last few days to be among the best.
My expectations were constantly challenged and surpassed. The Pennine Way, which I thought would be a bleak slog, turned out to be three of the best weeks of the trail. The Great Glen Way, that I had down as no more than a practical cross-country march, was packed with fun days. And instead of this last week being a head-down tarmac-treading exercise along busy roads, it has been a walk on the wild side, featuring some of the best wildlife in the entire 11 weeks.
Most of all LeJog was a walk that revealed the best of people and communities.
There was kindness, generosity and humour wherever I went. The waitress in Widemouth Bay who offered me £10 of her money to pay my food bill. Sue, who cleaned my clothes in Portreath . And Jane from Killeath, surely AirBnB host of the year, who drove me from start to end points for two days when my feet were a their worst – even cooking for me.
I enjoyed meeting other LeJogers. And others on long distance walks. Seaside Steve, Vegan Jay, Philip from Switzerland – and Gandalf. There’s no doubt a large part of the reason for my love of the Pennine Way was the people I met on it – over and over again. Nor will I forget being congratulated on my walk by five well lubricated (ahem) Scotsmen in the gents of the Tally Ho Inn in Winchburgh.
Then there were the unseen volunteers who were shaping their patch of the country for the better. Resurrecting our industrial heritage by unearthing mothballed canals, and re-opening closed railways. Nurturing our wildlife by creating communities in the woods, by planting new broadleaf forests, and by caring for out of the way beaches. Finally – and most personally to me – those creating a new long distance footpath in the shape of the John o'Groats Trail, which I hope my own footprints will in some infinitesimally small way help lay down above the cliffs.
It has been a summer that seems to have stretched for many, many months. But the end has come at the right time. Not only for my poor feet – mostly numb now, for there are only so many miles you can tread before your body slowly starts to break down. But mainly because you wouldn’t want an adventure to become routine.
The stone around here is prized for beautiful flagstones.
The remains of Bucholly Castle, almost completely surrounded by precipitous cliffs.
There was still time for a few LeJog firsts: like finding a path among rock pools.
Imposing Freswick House, that looms over Freswick Bay.
The white sands of lonely Freswick Bay.
The clifftop path: it becomes ever more established the closer you get to Duncansby.
First sight of the Stacks of Duncansby from atop the wonderfully named Hill of Crogodale.
Saving some of the best for last: the Stacks of Duncansby.
Inland is The Flow Country – Europe's largest area of blanket bog. The mood and landscape inland was reminiscent of parts of the Pennine Way.
The mighty Stacks in retrospect.
Duncansby Head Lighthouse – the northeastern most point of mainland Britain.
The white sanded Bay of Sannick.
Turquoise waters and beautiful coves.
Approaching John o'Groats. The spired building on the right used to be the John o'Groats Hotel. That hotel stopped hosting guests about 12 years ago and stayed open as a bar that end-to-enders had a traditional celebratory pint in. Now it is posh self catering apartments that don't serve beer. It meant I had to celebrate with tea and scones.
I walked 1268.9 miles for this?! You can see the famous sign on the far right.
A man who hasn't had a haircut in 11 weeks.
Celebration: tea and scone.
Shortly I’ll catch the 18.20 bus back to Inverness, where I’ll stay the night before heading home.
There I’ll pack my boots away for the rest they deserve. Well, a few days anyway.
Aside from a little housekeeping to this blog – a post pulling together practical suggestions about the walk for the benefit of future LeJoggers who may end up here, and the uploading of missing Day 39 – it’s done. I won’t be adding anything more.
Before signing off a few quick thankyous.
To those who either walked with me, fed me, drove me about or accommodated me on my way north – thanks. Seeing friendly faces on the trail meant a lot to me.
To those who have read, supported and commented on, either publicly or privately, the blog – thanks. There were moments when knowing others were sharing the journey made tough legs easier.
And finally, to Rebecca. It’s not many people who would respond to their partner’s announcement that they’re off for an 11 week walk with words of encouragement. More than that, it was Reb who gave me the final nudge (more a push) when I was teetering. I would almost certainly not have bought my one-way ticket to Penzance without her.
It’s time for me to sign off.
Thanks for being part of my journey.
It has been a blast.
I’ll close with a quote about walking that I don’t think’s been bettered in a thousand tomes of travel literature. It was on my mind when I left windy, rainy and deserted Land’s End. And I’m sure it’ll be with me on my next adventure.
They are the words of Bilbo Baggins.
“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.
“You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."
– The End –
Previous: Day 81 – Dunbeath to Wick.