Dunbeath to Wick
Updated: Jan 27, 2020
John o'Groats Trail - Day 6 - 25.1 miles - 'Near'
If ever there was a walk of two halves, this was surely it.
For the first 13 miles I was avoiding traffic on the painfully dull A9, then A99, as grey skies threatened rain.
For the next 12 miles I was bounding above the cliffs as the sun burned away the seamist.
And while it was a long day, it was another goodie on the wonderful John o'Groats Trail.
I wake to grim weather.
Every day since I left Inverness they've forecast storms, and they never came, until last night. Now there are puddles at the roadside and a heavy sea mist. What verge there is along the A9 is sodden wet, and I know from the canals that wet feet plus tarmac equal blisters.
Poor visibility, poor weather, unpleasant walking and 23 miles ahead. But there are two consolations: in Whaligoe at mile 13 I am to do what I did yesterday, and quit the A99 for what appears to be an easier leg of the John o'Groats Trail; secondly, I've nearly reached the end of the road.
For some unaccountable reason the A9 is busier than yesterday.
It means getting into a stride is virtually impossible.
The A9, you see, is a fickle companion. At some points there’s a luxuriously wide (wet) verge to plod along. At others there’s plenty of tarmac between the white traffic boundary and the road edge. But often there's space enough for neither – there's just you and the crash barrier, forcing you to stop and breathe in as cars, lorries and motorhomes tear past. All it needs is for one driver's concentration to lapse for a moment and your LeJog dream's finished – so close to the end.
I mention this to mum – just so she doesn't worry. I I tell her if it all ends now that the family will have to finish the walk for me, taking my ashes to the end. I am being melodramatic and she doesn't want to discuss it – though whoever did the honours would be getting off lightly; there's only a few dozen miles left.
It's a depressing start to the walk.
Not only has the mist knocked out the big sky views of yesterday, every step of the way is defined by neglect: overgrown fields, abandoned crofts, empty homes and FOR SALE signs a feature of each village.
Over breakfast I take the opportunity to ask my B&B host the question that's been puzzling me for the past three days: given how many hotels, inns and restaurants seem to have closed down – despite the fact it's incredibly hard to find both food and accommodation – is there really no money to be made from tourists?
She gives a weary laugh.
No, she says, that's not it at all.
The closures have nothing to do with money. And everything to do with the fact that those running the businesses are retiring and there are no young people coming forward to fill their place. Moreover, finding reliable workers to staff the pubs, cafes and restaurants is virtually impossible.
Sure, she says, the tourist trade is seasonal: a rammed July and August with a significant drop off when the holidays end. But even then there's steady trade from workers at the huge offshore wind farms and inland forests.
Finding and retaining hospitality staff is not just an issue for Caithness and Sutherland, of course. It's a nationwide challenge. The problem here is that the migrant workforce that has filled jobs down south has not percolated this far north. Even worse, the brightest young people growing up locally don't stick around (there is net out-migration for all ages from 15-39), causing a brain and talent drain of those with the ambition to turn things around.
If you've got aspirations, my B&B owner says, you get out of Caithness.
Without young people to either fill the jobs or take on the businesses, the pubs, restaurants and cafes simply close down when the existing – often ageing – owners quit.
It's a crazy kind of business. There's bags of money to be made but no-one wanting or willing to make it. So profitable companies close down and are not replaced, contributing to a cycle of decline which hits all aspects of the local – and national – economy.
Not only can you see it in the crumbling and vacant houses all along the coast road. You experience it when you try – and fail – to book accommodation and food. Supply far outstripping demand and no correction. A classic market failure.
Unless something changes LeJogers of the future may need to consider their options.
(Incidentally, my B&B owner is a wonderful woman because she gives LeJog walkers and cyclists a 10 per cent discount on the basis that they're either doing it for charity – which she likes to support – or for unspecified personal reasons that are often tragic enough to warrant a discount. I tell her I'm doing my walk to celebrate my 40th birthday. "That's the kind of thing I mean," she replies.)
At Whaligoe it was all change. Not only was I done with the tarmac, but the sun had burned off the mist leaving yet another fine day.
Even better, for the first time in hours there's a break from relentless economic decline in the shape of the wonderful Whaligoe Steps Café. I'd heard good things about it not only from my B&B host but also from walkers on the John o'Groats Trail, and it's as good as they said. A thriving café and bakery in an old clifftop barn that's packed with people and energy. It serves the best ploughmans of my trip.
This is it, I thought. This is exactly the kind of business that will thrive along this lovely coast.
Now all Caithness needs is dozens more.
I spend time exploring the steps.
For reasons that are unfathomable to me they're barely on the tourist trail. There's not even a sign to them from the A99 100 yards away.
Yet they're incredible.
330 (or 365 – reports vary) stone steps cut into the cliff edge give passage to the sheltered harbour far below. This harbour is bordered on three sides by towering cliffs, from which seabirds of all kinds swoop and sweep.
If you can get over the vertiginous climb down (and exhausting climb back up) the steps provide one of the manmade highlights of my Scottish trip.
The cliffs didn't disappoint
Despite approaching them with caution after yesterday brackeny defeat, the Whaligoe–Wick leg is a tamer beast. For the most part it's easy walking over clifftop pastures and heather moors where there's an emerging path that runs pretty much for the duration. The main challenge comes from the numerous barbed wire fences that have to be crossed, many of which remain unstiled – though this is changing all the time.
There's adventure in the terrain, fun in the navigation but most of all breathtaking views of the now dizzyingly high cliffs, stacks, sea caves and geos.
Even under blue skies, these red stone cliffs don't offer the sylvan beauty of the South West Coast Path. The landscape is, instead, wilder, with an untamed raw magnificence all its own.
And, like yesterday, I share it with no one. In the six hours I tread the clifftops I meet just one person – an old man who sees me hugging the cliff edge and comes to chat. He walked the cliffs regularly as a young man to watch nesting seabirds. Now he's built a house overlooking the sea so he can watch them full time.
Then, once again, I have the coastline to myself.
Which is crazy.
At times the massive geos force you to within a few hundred yards of the A99.
But I'd wager almost none driving along it even know these cliffs exist; before I read about the JoG Trail they certainly hadn't been on my radar. And I'd done the drive.
Maybe an established Trail will change that.
Either way, after walking hundreds of miles along paths that have been trod by generations of boots it's nice to think I'm giving something back: my footsteps over the meadows helping to form a route that might one day become one of the UK's great trails.
At my hotel in the historic fishing town of Wick – where the manager was kind enough to give me some Good Luck Petit Fours – I started thinking back on my trip, and, in the spirit of end of term reviews, I thought I'd compile a couple of lists, of my best days, and my best stopovers.
Here they are.
For all kinds of reasons, these are the ten walks I loved most:
Day 2: St Just to St Ives. Flowers, mines and hidden coves on one of the wilder sections of the South West Coast Path.
Day 10: Bude to Hartland Quay. My favourite walk of LeJog.
Day 33: Thorpe to Miller's Dale. The lovely Dove and dramatic Chee.
Day 41: Kirkby Malham to Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Breathtaking rock scenery.
Day 47: Middleton-In-Teesdale to Langdon Beck. Wildflowers, waterfalls and upland majesty in a walk that didn’t put a foot wrong.
Day 54: Byrnes to Kirk Yetholm. The walk to end all walks – and a perfect send off for the fantastic Pennine Way.
Day 55: Kirk Yetholm to Jedburgh. A beautiful introduction to the Scottish Borders on a perfect summer’s day.
Day 57: Melrose to Innerleithen. The fabulous – and almost deserted – Southern Uplands.
Day 73. Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit. A magical walk through the forests of the future.
Day 79: Golspie to Helmsdale. A bounty of sealife during a walk on the wild side.
And here are the places I enjoyed stopping at the most:
Portreath. Nearly my favourite AirBnB of the trip. My host, Sue, did my washing and dried my clothes by her log fire in a family house that felt like a home.
Heartland Quay. Watching the sun set as the staff left the hotel was an experience I won’t forget.
Glastonbury. Was everything I’d hoped for and more.
Boscastle. Surely one of the prettiest fishing villages in Britain.
Kilsyth. After my toughest day, one of my best night’s sleep, all thanks to the wonderful Libby at the Allanfault Farm B&B – an oasis for the canal-walking LeJoger.
Kirk Yeltham. I treated myself to a big room at the comfortable Border Inn to celebrate the completion of the Pennine Way. Wainwright would almost certainly not have approved.
Byrness. The Forest View is a special place, and my night there was the perfect goodbye to friends I’d made.
Langdon Beck. The Langdon Beck Hotel not only sits at the head of a magical valley, it also supplies Tunnocks Caramel Wafers in the tea tray.
Warren Farm. One of the more remote stopovers, but after a wet day on the moors, very welcome.
(And an honourable mention too to Jane, my AirBnB host in Killearn, who not only drove me around for two days, but also cooked me dinner! It was exactly what I needed to keep my then-broken body slowly plodding on.)