The drive up was smooth (made a nice change, my usual experience of driving to the Lakes involves a lot of stand still traffic) and all 15 of us more or less arrived together. We were staying at the Climbers’ Club hut which usually has spare beds for members, but we’d booked all 13 (+2 campers). We arrived around midnight and after we’d been crashing about for a while a sleepy and bashful looking guy came downstairs and apologised for not having checked the roster so Dayne volunteered to sleep on the sofa, quickly defusing the situation.
Day 1 – Saturday 13th Jan
Peaks – Maiden Moor, High Spy, Dale Head, Hindscarth, Robinson
Companions – Kevin, Katrina, Rob, Alfonso, Monica
Distance – 9.6mi (15.5km)
Ascent – 3,736ft (1,140m)
Pubs – Swinside Inn and Scafell Hotel walkers bar
Most awoke early and got on with getting ready to head out (I was last up at 8:30) but I was extremely organised on Thursday night and had not only planned my food for the weekend but already made up my lunch so knew I could afford to be a bit lazy. Over breakfast plans were made; one group were off to find some ice to climb, another up to the top of England, a couple of individuals wanted to walk alone and the rest of us decided on the nearby Newlands Horseshoe (minus Catbells). We drove to Little Town and then headed up to the col between Catbells and Bull Crag. The ascent was initially very sheltered but the wind picked up a little once we were on the tops. The view across Derwent Water up towards Keswick was stunning, with just a small amount of low, thin cloud – much better than expected.
We continued up to Bull Crag, stopping briefly behind a crag for some refreshments. All was still and quiet until we peeled ourselves away and got out from behind the rocks where the head wind blasted us. It wasn’t overwhelming so we pushed on up to High Spy and down the other side towards Dalehead Tarn. Unfortunately it was here that Monica and Alfonso decided to take the escape route down from the tarn back towards Little Town. We’d see them back at the hut later. Six became four and we had to climb the staircase up to Dale Head. The views back to High Spy took us by surprise, from here it looked like a long dramatic ridge but whilst up there it felt reasonably short and rounded. We walked into cloud but it was relatively thin and there were breaks, and the wind picked up briefly but it was still manageable.
The rest of the ridge was straightforward and we decided to make the diversion up to Hindscarth and back, with a lunch stop en route with my new favourite hot toddy: lemon and ginger tea with whiskey. The last climb was up to Robinson and my legs were starting to feel a bit heavy. At the top we had a new set of views. All the way along this walk we had new views at every corner which made it even more enjoyable. Up here some pools of water had frozen absolutely solid and it was possible to walk on them, and glide around. Standing in a star shape with my back to the wind I got nudged across the ice by the wind!
Now for the decent, not a long valley decent but a short sharp – part scramble – down the nose. We happened to take the route back to the hut which took us past the Swinside Inn so we thought it would be rude not to stop by for a swift libation (soft for me as I’m doing dry-ish January; no beer or wine). Later on in the evening we returned to a regular haunt; the walkers bar at the Scafell Hotel in Rosthwaite. It appears to have changed hands, the walls have been painted, the ‘look’ refreshed and the menu re-written. Unfortunately it’s changed for the worse, it appears that another traditional pub has bitten the dust and turned ‘gastro’. Sigh.
Day 2 – Sunday 14th Jan
Peaks – Grisedale Pike
Companions – Kevin, Alfonso, Monica
Distance – 7.2mi (11.6km)
Ascent – 2,897ft (885m)
Pubs – none ☹️
Car packed and goodbyes said (weekends go too quickly), Rob who had work to do, dropped us in Braithwaite on his way to a coffee shop in Keswick. We set off with the vague intention to bag Grisedale Pike, Hopegill Head and Sand Hill. It was a long and relentless ascent and I was certainly feeling slightly leaden booted after yesterday as we marched up the side of the hill. The further we went the colder it got, the windier, wetter, snowier and cloudier it got. Plus the terrain got a bit more challenging. It changed from a broad grassy track to a narrow, rock and slate path. Towards the very top the ground was also becoming frozen.
Once we reached the summit the wind was blasting the hail into our faces (when a fleck hit you right in the eye it did sting a touch), the visibility was poor and it was cold. Needless to say we didn’t hang about and continued on. Part way to the col we decided that the weather was taking the fun out of it so we cut across the lower slopes of Sand Hill to skip out the remaining two peaks. As soon as we started to descend the weather improved and we had great views down the valley.
It was an interesting route back to Braithwaite with waterfalls and a disused quarry. Rob’s timing was perfect so we all hopped straight in the car and hit the road back to London.
Total: 2 days, 16.8 miles, 6,633 feet of ascent and 2 pubs.
Having completed a rather large walk this summer (see: LEJOG final day) I took a brief hiatus from my blog, but not walking. I’ve already been on a couple of Rockhopper trips since landing back in the real world; Cheddar and the Brecon Beacons, but what with moving house and starting a new job I didn’t find the time to write up the notes. But now it’s 2018, so a new year and a new motto; “to upload blog reports after each trip”.
Every New Year, the Rockhoppers peel themselves out of their respective Christmas armchairs, arouse themselves from their turkey stupors and head to Scotland to work off the extra mince pies.Crianlarich was this years destination.
Day 1 – 28th Dec 2017 – Grasmere
Peaks – Stone Arthur, Great Rigg, Fairfield
Companions – Rob, Ellen, Christopher
Length (mi) – 6.5
Ascent (m) – 1102
Pubs – Traveller’s Rest
A fully laden car-load of us arranged to travel up via Grasmere and so after stocking up at the local Booths we checked into the YHA. First thing in the morning we re-packed the car ‘tetris-style’ and parked up on the main road. There was an air of excitement as we set off in the direction of the snow on the tops of the fells. It was a stiff climb up out of the valley and onto Stone Arthur but once up there it was the views what took my breath away not the effort of heaving myself up. Crisp white snow, blue sky with fluffy white clouds, and the sun bouncing off the ribbon-like rivers and sprawling lakes.
We had a brief attempt at a snowball fight and then continued up onto Great Rigg where we met the hoards coming from Heron Pike – the more orthodox way to reach Fairfield. We hunkered down in the shelter for a quick lunch and then started to descend to Grisedale Hause. The start of the path was fine but as it got steeper and rockier and the snow had been compacted by those coming up, it was too icy. Crampons on and walking like John Wayne we negotiated the rest of the steepish descent.
Once we were virtually at the bottom and after a few slips (mostly by Ellen), we accidentally took a slightly wrong turn that meant we had to walk past a pub to get to the car. Before long we were supping beverages in the warmth of the pub and looking forward to the next part of the trip. If this was the hors d’oeuvre I was very much looking forward to the main course. Crianlarich here we come!
Day 2 – 29th Dec 2017 – Inverarnan
Peaks – Beinn Chabhair
Companions – Rob, Ellen, Pete, Johnski, Dave, Alison, Bruce, Rachel, Daniel, Rachel and Florrie
Length (mi) – 9
Ascent (m) – 1107
Pubs – Drover’s Arms
With poor weather forecast a large group of us decide to head to Beinn Chabhair where we think we’ll be sheltered for most of the day. It’s an out and back trip, not my favourite, but around here the circuits are very big days that require good weather and/or long days. Neither of which we have today.It was touch and go as to whether all the cars would get out of the icy hostel car park, or along the road (we pass an incident where a car has left the road and lay resting in the ditch, there was already plenty of assistance on scene so we don’t sop). Eventually we gather at the Drover’s Inn and set off through the Beinglas campsite.It looks very different to when I stayed here in August whilst I was on the West Highland Way. Back then it was a hive of activity, absolutely crammed full of campers, hikers and music streaming out of tents/mini-marquees. Today it is deserted, snow covered and the contrast is a bit eerie.
We slip and slide up the side of Ben Glas Burn, soon reaching the plateau with a substantial track and seek out the lochan at the end of which we’ll turn away up and away from it. On the plateau we try to avoid the bogs which are disguised under the snow but a couple of us unintentionally find them. I myself experience an unpleasant trip into a bog. I’m following about five other people in single file along the path when my left foot somehow finds a hole about a foot deep. All of a sudden I’m sat on the ground trying to wrench my foot out which I fail to do. Someone reaches over and yanks my leg releasing my foot from the cold, wet quagmire and in my haste to get up off the ground I swivel and inadvertently plunge my right foot into the cold depths. D’oh! My boots and gaiters do their job and keep most of the water at bay.
We weave our way up steep gullies filled with snow about knee deep, and the going is slow. It’s like walking up a very unstable sand dune; the soft powdery snow gives way to uneven tussocky ground and sometimes ice underneath. Although we can’t see the top, we know we’ve reached the ridgeline and that the summit is nearby.The wind funnels across the mini-col bringing the wind chill down significantly (the forecast was for -10 to -15’C on the tops) so we don’t hang around for long as time is running out. We quickly strike out for the top, reach it and then turn around to retrace our steps.
Going down is far easier, the snow feels soft and forgiving, although we all know that hard rock shaped objects lurk beneath the pristine coating.A couple of gullies are ripe for bum-sliding which a few of us enjoy.On one occasion, I was about halfway down and the congestion at the bottom still hadn’t cleared, I was picking up pace and then a deep trench on the left comes into view. I try to hit the brakes and steer myself right but I become unstable and roll on to my right.My right shin/knee then finds one of the buried rocks and I tumble in the snow.I get up, luckily it’s not serious but it was a hefty clunk and my knee is sore. I limp on down, it soon eases and within what feels like no time at all, we’re back at the lochan (I managed to avoid the hole I found on the way up, unfortunately someone else found it).
Back at the track, the group divides, some head back down the steep burn-side path, some take the track. I opt for the track as the walking is easier on my sore knee, and then proceed to slip on the ice and bruise my other knee. Despite this, my pace quickens as I can almost taste the local ale and smell the wood smoke. It’s an eccentric pub, stuffed with taxidermy at every turn and I dine on a burger with haggis, scrummy!
A great day out and my first winter munro – a baptism of snow and ice, followed by boots drying by the fire.
Day 3 – 30th Dec 2017 – Tyndrum
Peaks – Sron nan Colan, Meall Odhar
Companions – Rob
Length (mi) – 7
Ascent (m) – 662
Pubs – Real Food Café
After yesterday I’m up for a slightly shorter day, as is Rob, so we head to the cafe in Tyndrum for breakfast – I decide that I’ve not had enough of the Scottish meats so I go for the full Scottish breakfast with sausages, bacon, black pudding, lorne sausage, plus potato cake, beans and mushrooms. Full of breakfast we head out across the railway line, initially contour around the base of the hill until we head straight up the side.There are lots of deer tracks crossing the path but no sign of any deer, or any other wildlife for that matter, I think it’s too cold for most things.Low down there is a distinct path but we lose it under the snow so we head off-piste but generally head to our right as there are disused mine shafts to our left.There are occasional breaks in the cloud that allow us to view the base of the valley from the hillside.At the top we spot a partridge and the way ahead is laid out by old posts of a border fence.
We wander around this mini-ridge and are soon atop Meall Odhar where we stop for a quick bite and a hot toddy – I remembered to bring my hip flask with me today and discover that lemon and ginger tea with whiskey is delicious! We look down on the forest below and there is no obvious route so we meander through the trees – it’s a proper winter wonderland – and there are deer tracks aplenty. We pause to make a snowman, the classic way, by rolling 2 balls of snow down the hill, furnish him with twigs for arms and fern tips for eyes and mouth.He looks a bit like E.T. crossed with No.5 from Short Circuit!
We continue down and just before reaching the edge of the forest a deer scampers off through the trees just a few metres away.Below the trees a large new deer fence (with no stile or gate to be seen miles) is overcome and we meet a track that leads up the valley to Ben Lui.No time for that today, so we turn down the valley, returning into the forest and to the level crossing at Tyndrum back to the cafe!
New Year’s Eve
Unbeknownst to me I barely sleep the night before and since Storm Dylan is forecast to pass over today I opt to spend a day in the hostel along with half a dozen others. I felt very snug and smug staring out at the rain lashing against the windows and the wind swaying the trees. I know I’d rather be sat by the fire reading a book today and looking after Fury the dog, than being out on the hill.In the afternoon it’s time to starting peeling potatoes, turnips and apples in order to serve up haggis, neeps, tatties with gravy and apple crumble for 35 hungry ‘hoppers – a recent new year’s eve tradition. After dinner, a few fireworks, drinks and games we wander down to the local pub to see in 2018.Most of us are tucked up in bed by 1am in order to get up and head back out on the hill the following day.
Day 4 – 1st Jan 2018 – Crianlarich
Peaks – Ben More
Companions – Florrie, Ellen (& Rob sort of)
Length (mi) – 7.3
Ascent (m) – 1146
Pubs – None
It’s a more leisurely start this morning and we’re walking by 10, but we don’t have a long route planned. Up Ben More, over the top, down to the bealach, into the valley and then follow the track back.It’s raining as we start and after ascending via a track, we turn up the muddy hillside where soon the ground and air are filled with snow.It’s here that Rob decides that a niggle he’s got is too sore to continue, so off he goes and takes his car with him but he offers to come and pick us up once we’re finished.
Visibility is poor but we’re sheltered from the worst of the wind and we gently zig-zag our way up.After a quick stop we spot the tracks of an individual who’s about an hour ahead of us so we use them as a guide through the uneven terrain.Soon we’re amongst icy rocks and I must admit that looking around and down, my knees wobbled slightly. If you were to slip it looked as though there wasn’t a lot to stop you.Logic told me I would stop because the ground and snow were mostly soft and not sheer but even so I felt exposed.It was time to don the crampons, after which I felt much more secure.We eventually reach the plateau when 4 figures appeared from our left – they’d come up the more exposed NE ridge and look chilled to the bone.We wished them a happy new year, stood by the trig point for the briefest of moments, took a bearing and headed off towards Bealach-eadardh-Bheinn.
We reach the bealach and turn down towards the valley.The lone walker ahead of us appears from behind; he’s been up and bagged Stob Binnein (we’ll have to come back another day!).We’re steadily descending but then find ourselves amongst about the only crags on this side of the hill.Florrie is in front, takes a sideways step and the snow gives way.She slides down the rock and comes to stop about 3-5m below in a mound of snow, she used her ice axe but I’m not sure it helped her much in this soft snow.I decide to turn and face the hill but there isn’t enough texture in the rock for the front spikes of my crampons to grip on to.I try to step down, but I know the inevitable is coming.I take one more small step and then slip, also sliding to a gentle stop. Ellen tries to pick an alternative route and gets a meter or two lower but also slides down.We stand up, brush ourselves off and I’m relieved that we’re all ok. Our falls were not significant enough to cause serious injury however even a minor injury to one of us in this spot could’ve changed the dynamic of the afternoon.
As we approach the road, dusk is falling and we begin to walk back to the hostel saving Rob the trip out.With less than 1km to go he pulls up and picks us up anyway, I’m secretly glad that there was a breakdown in communication as I wasn’t looking forward to walking the rest of the way on the busy road in the dark. That evening the feeling within in the hostel is more subdued, no-one is pouring over maps and guidebooks, wide-eyed at the opportunities that this landscape presents.Instead it’s about how early people are setting off for the long drive home.
Total: 4 days, 29.8 miles, 4,017m of ascent and 2 pubs.
Arrived into Lerwick on a glorious morning and it was a pleasant surprise to be able to check into my B&B; having booked it just hours ago and it only being 8am. After a visit to the tourist information and a coffee I set off on a self-guided walking tour of Lerwick. It took in all the sights, doing a full lap of Britain’s most northerly town in just a few miles. I walked around the informative museum learning about Shetland’s geology, it’s Neolithic significance, the Viking invasion and colonisation, the pawning of Shetland to Scotland as part of a dowry, the Dutch herring trade, Fair Isle knitwear, their role in the world wars and the Shetland ‘bus’, traditions such as Up Helly Aa right up to the impact that finding North Sea oil has had.
Shetland has a distinct feel to it, it has a tangible identity and Scandinavian feel, unlike the Orkneys which feel much more like mainland Scotland. It’s relative distance no doubt contributes to it’s isolated feel. I’ll now not be so crass as to lump them together as one group of islands off the north coast of Scotland, they’re practically 2 different countries separated by approx. 100 miles of sea (with little Fair Isle sat in the middle!).
Thursday 21st September
I picked up another hire car to get around more islands and to eventually take me to the northern part of Unst. First I drove south, down the mainland peninsula to Sumburgh Head, the lighthouse and RSPB reserve. At one point the traffic was halted at a level crossing-type barrier and my immediate thought was; ‘there are no trains on Shetland’. My instinct was correct, we were let through and it turned out it was for one of the runways at Shetland’s main airport. It was novel driving across the strip of tarmac and part of me wanted to veer off and see what my Kia Picanto was made of, but the large yellow signs warning of fines did their job.
On the way back north I visited Jarlshof, a neolithic settlement very reminiscent of Skara Brae in Orkney. It was buried under sand dunes, revealed in the same storm of 1880 and looks remarkably similar despite nothing categorically linking them. I started making my way towards Voe stopping at Scalloway (the historical capital of Shetland) and an art gallery. I would be spending the night in a böd – the one in Voe is a former salt store and sail loft. They are unique to Shetland and are halfway between a hostel and a bothy. They all have custodians who typically live nearby to deal with guests and you have to book in advance but other than that it’s very informal. I followed the instructions for finding the custodian and once inside it felt very much like a hostel but I had the place to myself. There were 2 dorm rooms, a kitchen with the basics and toilets and showers, and the location right on the harbour was delightful.
I went for a quiet drink at the pub that was opposite the böd then retired to light myself a peat fire. Like Orkney, Shetland has no trees but a huge amount of peat which is commercially extracted, dried and packaged much like coal.
Friday 22nd September
Western Mainland, across Yell and up to tip of Unst
The previous day had been dreich but by morning it had cleared and was a gloriously crisp morning. The wind was biting but the light is so sharp up here. This time I headed north west to the headland of Eshaness which is a very dramatic coastline, sculpted by the Atlantic which constantly batters the rocks. There are steep cliffs, stacks, inlets (geos), caves and arches which constantly draw the eye as you wander along the tops.
Unfortunately I couldn’t wander for hours, I had ferries to catch. Firstly from the mainland up to Yell, then a connecting ferry from Yell to Unst (with a 30min drive between the two ports). Once on Unst I only had one thought; getting to the most north easterly point and finding somewhere to camp. This for me was the end of my trip; having visited Long Point on St Agnes, all those months and miles ago, by getting to Skaw on Unst would mean I would have travelled across the entirety of Britain from the most south westerly point to the most north easterly.
I arrived at Skaw (marked on the map as the most northerly house in Britain), parked the car, wandered down to the beach and found it to be an idyllic spot for one last wild camp. I made sure I was pitched just north of the house, likely making me the most northerly person in Britain for the night! I watched the sun set behind me, listened to the sea birds squawking and the waves crashing. It was a nice moment to reflect on the trip. It wasn’t the most serene night; the waves continued to crash very loudly (I had checked that I was camped above the strand line but the doubt crept in; ‘could there be a freakish high tide, it is the autumn equinox tonight, are they linked?’), and the wind whipped up the beach contorting my tent into all sorts of shapes. I had faith that it would stay in tact but if it didn’t, I could move to the car and fix the tent when I got home. The sky was clear so it was a cold night and the stars were truly awesome. The milky way was obvious, there were shooting stars a plenty and the horizon to the north glowed a dull yellow/orange. I would learn later that this was the northern lights but since it wasn’t dancing green shafts of light I didn’t give it a second look and leapt into bed.
Saturday 23rd September
Unst to Fetlar
The morning was bright but still cold and I packed away the tent for the final time with 2 seals watching me. I then wrote a note to accompany the pebble that I picked up on St Agnes, Scilly. I placed them in a jar and threw it into the sea. I wonder if anyone will find it?
I drove back down Unst, more slowly this time, stopping at the attractions:
Left: This one’s for Ronnie and Julie. Me with the most northerly post box I could find!
Right: Bobby’s bus shelter (the previous bus shelter was demolished and once the new one was installed it acquired furniture, it now has a makeover every year).
I caught the ferry to Fetlar where I was spending another night in a böd, this time it was much more traditional. It was a croft that had belonged to a local storyteller called Jamsie and was very well looked after. Whilst on Fetlar I watched an episode of Time Team in the museum (hosted by my new mate Sir Tony) where they uncovered some stonking Viking finds on Fetlar, went twitching at the reserve and spent some time on the beach. Back at the böd I met fellow dweller; Neal. A local, he had retired from the oil refinery at Sullum Voe the previous year and had started a project to walk the 1,000mile coastline of the inhabited islands of Shetland. He was almost finished, seeing this as training for doing LEJOG next year so we had a lot in common and spent the evening talking in front of the fire. I was honoured to have met him, there are far fewer people in the world (approx. 2) who’ve walked the coast of Shetland than have walked LEJOG. Neal – feel free to get in touch. If I can, I’d like to join you on a day of your LEJOG trip.
Sunday 24th toWednesday 27th September
Fetlar to Home
On the way to catching my 4th ferry out of 6 in 2 days I stopped to feed some Shetland ponies and watch the gannets dive bomb into the rough sea. I then drove back down Yell, down the mainland to Lerwick to catch the overnight ferry to Aberdeen.
On the way home I stopped off in Edinburgh to have dinner with an old friend, and in Durham to spend an evening with Ronnie and Julie who’ve cheered me on from the sidelines since their LEJOG trip came to it’s premature end. They’re support has meant a lot to me and I feel like I’ve made friends for life. I just hope I’m able to provide the same level of support when they attempt the trip again next year. Once I’d finally made it to London there was just enough time to swing by the pub for a swift drink where the Rockhoppers were having their monthly social. I hadn’t told anyone I was back, I just walked into the pub with my bag on my back and said ‘surprise’!
On the very final leg of my journey, on the train from London to East Sussex, I finally came to terms with the trip coming to an end. I’d put it off for nearly 2 weeks but now I was ready for some of lifes luxuries; slippers, central heating, a fluffy towel, my own bed, clean clothes and home cooked food. I think the reality of what I’ve achieved will take some time to sink in and I look forward to looking back on the high points and the low points.
I’ve also very much enjoyed keeping this blog, although at times it has been hard to motivate myself to do it. So a final thank you to anyone and everyone who has read it, I hope you enjoyed it, and you never know there could be a book so keep your eyes peeled for that and you can read it all over again!
Saturday 16th September
Orkney Mainland – Kirkwall and Stromness
After spending Friday recovering, come Saturday I was ready to jump aboard the ferry from John O’Groats to Burwick which is on the south east island of South Ronaldsay. The bus would then take me across 3 more islands to the capital of Kirkwall on the mainland – that would be 5 out of 70 Orkney islands in just 30 minutes, if I keep up this rate I could see them all in one day! To give you an idea of the archipelago; 20 of the 70 islands are inhabited by approx. 21,000 people.
I checked into the hostel, visited the cathedral, the museum, the high street and then hopped on another bus to the other main town of Stromness. It was hosting to the Orkney Blues Festival this weekend so I went to check it out. After exploring the town, including a well established museum of modern art I left the main streets and walked up to the nearest trig point. I have a hill walking habit now and needed a fix.
The Blues Festival started slowly but by 8pm the hotel was rocking; standing room only. Unfortunately, the last bus back to Kirkwall was at 9pm so I missed the BBC Blues Band but I still had a toe tapping time.
Sunday 17th September
Island of Shapinsay
The pier opposite the hostel was used for trips to Shapinsay (pronounced Shap-say I think), so that is where I went. A few thousand years ago the Orkney Islands would have been covered with trees, but the early farmers tore them down and it’s been that way ever since. Farming is the way of life up here, with its resulting products being the main export and so they use every square meter for this purpose. The vast majority of the island is a network of fields with the occasional track between 2 fences which as a wanderer is a bit frustrating. There was however an RSPB reserve with a hide, kitted out with binoculars and a telescope, bonus! So I spent a couple of hours enjoying lots of twitching firsts; widgeon, shovelers, teal and possibly a hen harrier. Very exciting!
In the afternoon I went down to the beach for some relaxation and a bit of beach art.
Further along the coast, I took a track that led to the shore and as I got close I could see some seals lying across the rocky shelf that stretched out into the water. They spotted me straight away and started to shift towards to the water in their inelegant manor, so I stopped dead and crouched out of sight. I waited for them to relax, I took my bag off and left it by the path. I then proceeded in a Grandmother’s footsteps-type way creeping towards them and frequently ducking out of sight. There were a few adults and a couple of younger ones – common seals I think, not the really cute furry grey ones – but seals nonetheless. Once I got to within about 50m I went down on my hands and knees to crawl up behind a mound of dirt and popped my head out occasionally to watch them. It was a lovely moment and as I watched them behave very naturally, with others swimming about in the bay.
Monday 18th September
Island of Hoy
Another day, another off-island and ferry ride. This time to Hoy, with one of Orkney’s most recognisable natural features sitting just off the west coast – the Old Man of Hoy. As the boat navigated around the island of Graemsay just outside Stromness harbour, the hills of Hoy loomed ahead. Shapinsay and Hoy couldn’t be more different. As I eluded to earlier, the former is flat (a high point of 64m), fertile and one big field system, Hoy on the other hand is home to the highest point on the archipelago (492m), is mostly wild moorland and peat bog, and feels much more like part of the west coast of Scotland.
At the port, a minibus was waiting to take a few of us to Rackwick from where we could walk up and over to the Old Man. We arranged a return time for the bus; 4hrs later. The driver and a sign indicate that it takes 3hrs to walk out and back to the coast to see the sea stack. I needn’t have been cautious about the time, as it turns out I’m a bit quicker than your average tourist these days. I reached the viewpoint within 40mins and admired the geology. It’s an interesting thing, but I thought that the view looking north along the west coast was far more dramatic (they are some of the tallest sea cliffs in Europe). I checked the time and the map. I needed to get my fix for pathless, mossy, boggy peaks so headed off the beaten track to Moor Fea. From here I could see back across to mainland Scotland; Dunnet Head (the most northerly point of mainland Britain) and the mountains in the background. I enjoyed some frivolity on the summit in the company of some mountain hares and then pootled back to the hostel at Rackwick. There was still 90mins to wait so I wandered down to the bothy and the beach.
Lucy on Hoy!
Tuesday 19th September
Orkney – Western Mainland
The main sites are not accessible by bus, so I hired a car for the day. I visited; the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, Skara Brae, Skaill House, the Kitchener Memorial, the Orkney Brewery and another bird hide. Eventually returning the car in Kirkwall before catching the overnight ferry to Shetland. It was a very busy and educational day, so prepare for a history lesson!
The Orkney landscape is littered with ancient monuments, villages, temples, cairns and burial chambers. Historians believe that Orkney was a centre for the Neolithic people, having found examples of their society and culture that surpass all others in Europe. Firstly, the standing circle of stones at Stenness is one of the earliest in Britain, having been placed there about 5,000 years ago. The stones are massive and the space they create is evocative, especially if you visit early on a blustery weekday morning and virtually have the place to yourself.
The Ring of Brodgar is another stone circle which has been well documented, but the land it stood within; the Ness of Brodgar had been overlooked. Archaeological digs are currently in progress which are revealing a new ancient wonder of the world which is on a par with or even supersedes the pyramids of Egypt.
Orkney Traffic Jam!
Next stop was Skara Brae; a settlement occupied from 3180BC to 2500BC. Unbeknownst to the local laird, the set of 8 neolithic houses was lying beneath sand dunes in the bay of Skaill until 1850 when a huge storm scoured away the sand. It revealed a perfectly preserved world. The walls and features were so immaculate that I almost didn’t believe the story. I was sceptical because I couldn’t comprehend that something so old could look so new. I could visualise people (although historians don’t know what they looked like) going about their daily lives; cooking at the hearth, eating from bowls, sleeping in their beds, making tools and playing games with their neighbours who’d come through the underground passages.
I then skipped very quickly through time; fast forwarding about 4000 years to when the first part of Skaill House was built. It’s Orkney’s finest manor house but given how spoilt I was growing up in a National Trust hot spot, it didn’t capture my imagination as much as the neolithic history so I didn’t spend long there. Next stop was another 300 years forward in time; the Kitchener memorial. It was built in the 1920’s in memory of not only Lord Kitchener (from THAT WWI recruitment poster; “Your country needs you”) but the other 736 lives lost and the 12 survivors of HMS Hampshire. They had been ordered to sail to Russia for a meeting with the Tsar despite an incoming storm. It is believed the ship struck a German laid mine. This, along with the atrocious weather is what led to the scale of the disaster. It’s location upon the cliffs at Marwick Head is poignant but the weather could not have been more different from the day of the catastrophe. I spent some time watching the sea birds (fulmars I think), the bunnies and looking out to sea where, if you took a bearing exactly west, next landfall would be Newfoundland having just bypassed the southern tip of Greenland.
The final stop on my whirlwind tour of west Orkney is only 29 years old; the brewery. I found it a hard pill to swallow that I had had to drive to the brewery and therefore couldn’t properly sample their fares. I did however purchase a few bottles of ale to sample at a later date. Once I had returned the car, I put my feet up at the Kirkwall hotel for the evening. The ferry was at 23:45 and the lovely hotel receptionist who clocked off at around 10pm offered me a lift to the port. She considered 2miles far too far for me to walk and I agreed, not letting on that I had just completed LEJOG. I didn’t want her to rescind her offer!
Ales imbibed: 2x Scapa Swelkie + far too many whiskies!
Where to start? How can I sum up the day in just a few words? Well, I’ll give it my best shot.
I left Keiss with an air of excitement with all sorts of thoughts flashing through my mind, but I had to concentrate as for the first half of the day I decided to stick with the road. Some drivers really don’t give pedestrians much space and on occasion I had to leap into the verge.
I took a break down by a derelict pier at Skirza and had a reflective moment before the rush and excitement of the last few miles along the coast up to Duncansby Head and finally round to John O’Groats. It was interesting walking; along the tops of sea cliffs but very much a heathery and slightly boggy terrain underfoot – 2 features which in my experience don’t often come together. There was very little sign of a path until I came to Duncansby Stacks which are a stunning feature. I was fighting back tears over much of the morning because I was finally allowing myself to actually believe that I’d be walking into John O’Groats later in the day. It’s something which I’ve visualised a number of times over the course of the trip but not allowed myself to get properly excited about until now. ‘I think I might just do it!’
I continued on and despite trying to take my time and relish the experience I arrived at Duncansby Head for lunchtime. My average speed was higher than usual on account of being fuelled by adrenaline. Also, the weather was pretty wild; very windy and the odd shower and so unfortunately it wasn’t ambling weather. Duncansby Head is technically the most north easterly point of mainland Britain, but for me the finish line was at the John O’Groats signpost which was a mile to the west along the coast.
With just half a mile to go I was grinning like a Cheshire Cat, had tears streaming down my cheeks and was virtually running. I rounded a corner and the post came into view. I’d arrived. I collapsed on to a nearby bench and watched as tourists posed with the famous sign and thought about what I’d achieved. I was a whole mixed bag of emotions; pride, relief, excitement, disbelief, joy, satisfaction and many many more. Once I’d finally gathered myself together I called members of my family and friends to share the news of my arrival. I fell apart all over again with every phone call I made. Ironically, my parents who’d I spoken to virtually every day and who had not been unavailable at any point, were en route to Budapest so were at 35,000ft at the very moment that I arrived. That phone call would have to wait!
I’ve done it!
Once I’d had my photo taken with the signpost, I headed to the hotel. I showered, dined and hit the bar. Time to let my hair down and celebrate. I was overwhelmed by the messages of congratulations that I was receiving on Facebook, I was sat in the corner beaming! After a couple of local ales, I got chatting to some of the other patrons who once they’d heard my story were kind enough to offer me drams of whiskey, which I couldn’t resist. After one too many whiskies I tottered off to bed, tomorrow I would start planning the final stage of my journey. I don’t mean my return journey home, not just yet anyway!
Before I set off from Land’s End, some of you may have read that I took a trip to the Isles of Scilly. When I was there I went to the most south westerly inhabited island called St Agnes and I went to the most south westerly point. Whilst there I dipped my toe in the water and also picked up a pebble (a very small pebble!) which I have carried all the way to John O’Groats. My aim now is to get to Skaw, which is the most north easterly beach on the most north easterly inhabited Shetland island of Unst via the Orkney Islands. And when I get there I think I’ll throw the pebble into the sea. I won’t necessarily be walking, I’ll do a bit but I’ll be using transport, maybe even a hire car – gasp! Then I can say I truly have travelled the full length of Britain.
So stay tuned, this isn’t quite the final chapter!
I left Lairg with a spring in my step, my tummy was still a little bit tender but the end was now in sight; 77.5 miles to go. The first part of the route was along lanes around farms on the outskirts of Lairg and led to a couple of lochs on the boundary of a forest.
Once in the forest the path petered out by Loch Tigh na Creige as expected, so I climbed the stile to a stream. The guidebook says “head uphill due north through a narrow gap in the trees…emerge through bracken onto a forest track”. Easier said than done – even with the tip that the author gave me back in Kinlochewe – I couldn’t find a particularly favourable route so I just waltzed into the densely planted trees. I managed to do ok until there was about 20 meters to go and a whole raft of trees had naturally fallen and blocked the route up and down. I could sense the path just the other side of the trees so rather than go all the way back pressed on. It was very slow going, sometimes on hands and knees with trunks, branches and twigs spraying out in all directions. At one point I crawled under a two adjacent trunks and when I stood up forcing my way through vegetation I felt trapped in a laser maze à la Mission Impossible. I almost couldn’t move, so I freaked out, snapped all the twigs in the vicinity and then looked for a way out. Luckily my senses were correct and the other side of this I found the track – phew!
It was then a long march along a forestry track to the hamlet of Dalnessie. It’s a very remote place and I suspect they get snowed in for days (or weeks) at a time during the winter months. After a quick lunch stop of tinned tuna in a bread roll, I cracked on across and over quite a vast stretch of nothing rising to around 500m. Just bog and peat, a couple of streams and a few sheep. The plateau was mostly featureless but I managed to find the stream that led down the valley towards Loch Choire.
View down to Loch Choire
It was still a couple of miles to go, I was feeling tired and I wanted to get to the bothy. A newly fenced area full with overgrown vegetation tried its best to slow me down, but before long I was trotting along on established path with the bothy getting closer with every step. In the valley was a huge herd of deer, around 100 or so, and when I stopped to take a picture, something caught my eye. I swung round and there were 2 walkers a hundred meters behind me. They rather made me jump – as I’d not seen anyone all day and wondered where they had materialised from – it turned out they had joined the path from the other fork where I had joined it and were also staying at the bothy.
My bothy companions for the evening were Ursula and Alex, who had stayed the previous night too. It was a modest bothy but well maintained and stocked with firewood. After settling in and having dinner we whiled away the evening chatting in front of the roaring stove which kept the bothy nice and toasty. I learnt that Ursula is a hill walking fiend, and despite living in Cambridge and her advancing years, visits Scotland and the bothies regularly with Alex – who does the heaving lifting, literally. She has completed the Munros (x 282), the Corbetts (x 222), the Grahams (x 221), the Marilyns (x 1,217) and is now visiting the HuMPs (x 2,162 – of which she has about 300 left)! What a phenomenal woman. I was in such awe that if I were to open my mouth I would just gush, so I kept quiet. Now I wish I had gushed. If I’m half as fit and active as Ursula when I’m her age, I’ll be well chuffed.
Day: 96 – Friday 8th September
Started at: Loch Choire bothy
Finished at: Kinbrace
Miles from LE: 1175
Miles from J’OG: 59
Duration: 8.25hrs (8:45-17:00)
Trig points visited: 0
Ales imbibed: 0
Having seen the weather forecast and it materialising in the morning with plenty of rain on the bothy roof I decided to stay put for the day where I was warm, dry and could continue to rest up. I’ve turned into a fair weather walker! There were some breaks in the rain, enough to tempt out Ursula and Alex who walked up the HuMP behind the bothy, returned for lunch, packed up and then set off back to the Crask Inn. I swept the bothy, napped, collected and cut some more wood and in the evening had another fire.
Me and my fire
In the morning it was warm, dry and a lack of wind brought out the midges but I enjoyed a nice amble all the way down the lochside. From the lodge, it’s 11 miles along the access track to the road, it was going to be tedious but there was a 2 mile section of footpath which cut off a corner and broke up the monotony. I took lunch on a jetty that stretched out on to the waters of a loch and just as I was finishing it started to spit. I wasn’t concerned.
Herd of stags
Once I eventually made it the road I was just 4 miles from Kinbrace, a very small hamlet with very few facilities or services, where I was going to find somewhere to wild camp. At 3:30 the rain got heavier and heavier and heavier. It was the kind of rain that bounces as it pummels the ground and within minutes I was drenched and not even a tree to be seen for shelter. An hour and a half later when it was still falling heavily and a number of cars had added upward spray as well as downward spray I was wet to the skin all over and had water running down my legs under my waterproof trousers which flowed into my sock and boots which now squelched. I arrived in Kinbrace desperate for shelter. Both churches marked on the map were locked but there was a train station with a bus shelter on the platform. I stood inside and starting thinking about my next move. There was no accommodation within 10miles. Wait for the rain to ease and find somewhere to pitch my tent? Pitch my tent in the bus shelter? Knock on a door and ask for help? How could I dry off anything? I then realised I was at a train station and there were 2 trains scheduled for the rest of the day and they were imminent; 1 northbound and 1 southbound. Somehow I had a 3G signal and I could do some quick research. Within an hour I was checking into a budget hotel in Helmsdale and was very relieved to be staying somewhere warm and dry. I spread my kit out everywhere and set the little electric heater to max.
Day: 97 – Saturday 9th September
Started at: Kinbrace
Finished at: River Thurso
Miles from LE: 1188.5
Miles from J’OG: 45.5
Duration: 9.75hrs (10:15-20:00) incl 2 hour lunch stop in tent…
Trig points visited: 1 (first since day 70!) Knockfin Heights, 438m – NC924354
Ales imbibed: 0
Even by morning most of my things were still wet, but drier than they had been. I’d hate to think of the state I’d have been in if I’d camped on wet ground too. I got on the first train back to Kinbrace which arrived at 10:10 but given I only had 13.5miles I didn’t think it was a problem.
Once I turned off the road it was more pathless, boggy terrain with a few sheep dotted about and a huge herd of deer. I started heading up along a stream and the wind was picking up and bringing with it some dampness in the air. Upon reaching the top; a large peat hag plateau (it felt remarkably like Kinder Scout), the rain really came over and I decided I didn’t want a repeat of yesterday and so just stopped in my tracks and pitched my tent. Amazingly I had 4G so I checked the weather and it was due to pass relatively quickly. It was around 13:30 so I ate lunch and wrapped myself in a foil blanket to try to keep warm. The rain was heavy and consistent until 15:30 when it practically stopped so I leapt out and packed a very wet tent.
Lunch in the tent
I found the trig point among the peat and mist and then picked up the stream that would lead to an estate track. The pathless riverside seemed to go on forever but it did eventually meet the track. I immediately started romping down as it was about 17:30 and time was getting on a bit – so much for a relaxed day! I came across a nice summerhouse type structure just as a cloud blew across bringing more rain with it. It was open so I let myself in. It was clearly an estate picnic house and it was very smart inside; including tartan cushions, a Weber gas barbecue and an electric heater. If the rain carries on, could I stay? Perhaps. Well the rain stopped so it wasn’t required and off I went again racing the next rain cloud.
I strolled past a set of estate buildings called Glutt Lodge and then 2 miles on, just short of where I intended to camp – which was in the broad valley of the River Thurso – there was a sheltered spot by a bridge before the confluence of 2 rivers. I pitched my very wet tent, but it was now a nice evening so it dried off a bit, had dinner and went to bed.
Knowing that the weather was due to be bad the next day, if it was raining in the morning I would stay put and move on once the weather improved. I was now very conscious of it being the end of day 97 and having only 3 days of walking left, making it a nice round 100, I didn’t want to have to bail out on a day, making it a half day and therefore 101 days.
Well the forecast was wrong! Shocking I know. Sunday didn’t turn out to be so bad, there was rain but it was showery and probably would have been ok. But since it was going to be a 20mile day, once it got to 11am when the rain first cleared I didn’t think it would be good to set out that late. So I stayed put and somehow found ways to occupy myself for a full 24hrs. I read, did some sudokus and put some serious thought into food rationing. Also the estate game keeper came and said hello, which was nice. Well he was just checking that I was alive; ‘you do get stiff ones every now and again’.
I set my alarm so that I could leave promptly the next morning. I needn’t have bothered with the alarm – I was awake most of the morning hours with rain hammering down on the tent and the wind whipping through too. Perhaps the worst of the weather was 24hrs late? It was far worse than the previous day so I was in for another long stint in my tent with diminishing food supplies. Overnight the river had risen from a tame trickle to more of a rush but I was still a little way away and I checked it every so often. At around 10:30 the game keeper swung by again in the pouring rain and said that the river would continue to rise and could well reach the level of my tent. I thanked him and did not hang about, I could see it had risen considerably since the last time I’d checked; it was now a torrent and I didn’t want to take any risks. I hurriedly packed up and headed for the shelter of a nearby derelict cottage with outbuildings and what appeared to be an old and empty silage tank on its side. I settled down in the old tank, doing star jumps to keep warm and found a flat-ish, dry-ish and sheltered-ish piece of ground that I would pitch my tent on, should the weather ease at all.
Keeping myself warm and entertained
The game keeper then passed by one more time (he’d been on his weekly 52mile round trip to the supermarket!) and he offered me the shelter of his cottage at Glutt; a spare bed, hot food and somewhere to dry my tent. I didn’t hesitate. We had a cup of tea in his kitchen and chatted, his name was Gus (originally from Derbyshire) and this was his forth season as the game keeper out here. Over the course of the day I learnt about stag hunting, grouse shooting, falconry, estate life and pointers (he had 3 English pointers; Pluto, Tosh, and Gromit the 14week puppy and an English setter; Broch). In the afternoon, some clients of a neighbouring estate came over in the hope that Gus could take his peregrine falcon out to catch a grouse. I went along and although Tosh was able to point out a grouse it was too windy for the falcon, but I certainly enjoyed the privilege of a ride in the back seat of the Land Rover with the falcon!
Gus served up steak and veg for dinner accompanied by beer and we watched university challenge in front of a raging peat fire. What a saviour!
Day: 98 – Tuesday 12th September
Started at: River Thurso
Finished at: Watten
Miles from LE: 1208.5
Miles from J’OG: 22.5
Duration: 8.75hrs (9:00-17:45)
Trig points visited: 0
Ales imbibed: 0.5x East Coast IPA
After breakfast Gus dropped me back off from where I he had picked me up, I said my thanks and waved goodbye. I then had 6 miles of track followed by 14 miles of road ahead of me. Initially through wild ground, then alongside Loch Moss and then through farmland to Watten. I skipped virtually the whole way and sung out loud to the music I was listening to but other than that it was an uneventful day. Here are a couple of photos:
Me walking – first time I thought about doing this, better late than never I suppose!
Day: 99 – Wednesday 13th September
Started at: Watten
Finished at: Keiss
Miles from LE: 1219
Miles from J’OG: 12
Duration: 4.5hrs (10:00-14:30)
Trig points visited: 0
Ales imbibed: 1x Orkney Wayfarer
Well, the penultimate day. I knew it would be a relatively short day so I didn’t rush off, initially went past Watten Loch and it was more of the same from yesterday; farms, sheep, cows, wind turbines, roads and therefore cars. The guidebook does give a much more road free alternative to yesterday and today but ‘difficult going’ through the Moss of Killimster didn’t take my fancy. I relished in it being easy – if a little boring – even though I had to contend with big metal box-type things coming towards me at 30-40mph. At one stage the road was closed for resurfacing and I didn’t fancy taking the long diversion, so I brazenly strode through the many signs and approached the workmen who said I could walk by on the verge. Good job I heeded their advice because the freshly laid tarmac was so hot and still steaming that had I walked on it it would’ve melted the rubber soles of my boots and I’d have been stuck!
Roadworks ain’t going to stop me now!
A little further on a rain shower came over but there was an open barn so I took shelter for a few minutes and ate my last haribo. Very soon after the coast came into view and before long I was scrambling up the sand dunes – amongst cows! – and down the other side into the beach. Being on the beach felt very significant as I hadn’t walked on the sand since Cornwall and being the second to last day was also conjuring up all sorts of emotions.
Me on the beach at Sinclairs Bay
After a picnic on the beach I wandered up to Keiss and checked into the hotel then headed out to see the sights of Keiss. That took all of about thirty seconds, unfortunately there’s not a lot going on in Keiss. There’s the harbour, the castles old and new which I would see tomorrow and that’s about it – I didn’t think I should be seen checking out the primary school around going home time. The only shop had closed down so I nursed a pint in the bar, had dinner in my room and went to bed. Big day tomorrow!
I started where I left off and initially walked through Inverlael Forest. It was Saturday morning so there were a few day walkers about, no doubt bagging some nearby munros. I met a couple of chaps who went bounding off down the path and I thought that the direction they were going was a bit odd unless they had the LEJOG guidebook. 10mins later they came back waving their arms shouting “it’s a dead end, turn around”. I said “I know but I’m turning off here” and it transpired that they were already lost. They had a chaotic air about them and I never saw them reappear where they should’ve done. I wonder if they ever got up the hills!
Setting off again
As I was not at full strength I decided to have a longer day but on easier terrain as opposed to a long pathless section. Once up out of the forest I was on a broad plateau and had 4km of bog to negotiate. The River Douchary came into view and just beyond it the track that I could follow all the way down Strathmulzie, past Corriemulzie lodge and onwards to the Schoolhouse bothy.
My new boots were feeling good and were holding up much better against the bog than the old pair. I tested them against the river and they passed with flying colours! It was a warm and mostly sunny day and generally just enough breeze to keep the midges at bay – perfect walking weather. Must also have been perfect dragonfly weather as there were so many flying about.
Other than that it was an uneventful day, which is just what I needed. I met a couple of fisherman nearby the lodge who were captivated by my story and said that I should stroll into the lodge and demand a dram of whiskey or a cup of tea at least. I decided to take it in jest and head on to the bothy, I would need all the rest I could get.
The bothy was lovely, it was in fact a schoolhouse in the 1870s and was fully refurbished about 10 years ago. It is an iron clad structure with wooden cladding inside, and large windows. It was the biggest, brightest, cleanest and most interesting bothy I’ve stayed in. One room even has a couple of old school desks, a blackboard and a selection of academic books. It was a lovely sunny evening so I headed down to the river for a refreshing swim and wash.
Day: 93 – Sunday 3rd September
Started at: Schoolhouse Bothy
Finished at: Oykel Bridge Hotel
Miles from LE: 1123.5
Duration: 1.5hrs (11:30-13:00)
Trig points visited: 0
Ales imbibed: 0.5x McEwans 80′
Today was extra short due to my decision making yesterday, and was pretty dull – just 4 miles along a forest track to Oykel Bridge.
The interesting part of the day – after I had removed 8 ticks(!) – was the afternoon, as it turns out Sunday is changeover day for the gentlemen who come to fish the rivers. During the early afternoon the hotel had been so quiet you could hear a pin drop and then suddenly at 5pm it erupted into a hive of activity. Weary guests (most having traveled up from southern England) were streaming in with gear aplenty; most of it bound for the rod room. I had just landed into a world I know nothing about – Scottish estate salmon fishing. Everything I now know about this topic I learnt from overhearing the conversations that proceeded over the next couple of hours in the hotel bar. Including the classic anecdote; ‘the fish was this big’ said with hands held wide apart in front of them. I was captivated.
News quickly spread through the group about my presence and I had to be restrained at the offer of drinks. I had already learnt that beer won’t fix my upset tummy.
Day: 94 – Monday 4th September
Started at: Oykel Bridge Hotel
Finished at: Lairg
Miles from LE: 1139
Duration: 8hrs (9:00-17:00)
Trig points visited: 0
Ales imbibed: 0
Bridge over the Oykel
I waved goodbye to the fishermen who were setting off at the same time and the walk today started along the River Oykel. It was pleasant walking but showery overhead. Further on down the river a fishermen (not one I recognised) came striding towards me from about 200yards to accost me. He firstly assumed that I was heading up the wrong valley, which put my back up. “Are you looking for Corriemulzie? It’s not down here.” “No I’m not” I replied, “I’m heading to Rosehall”. “Ah well you can’t get there down this side of the river.” “I know, I’m planning to cross at the bridge and continue”. He then rambled on about how I couldn’t go the way that I had described but I didn’t follow him and looking at the map, I didn’t think he was right, so I cracked on ignoring his advice and lo behold it was fine!
When the rain really came down luckily there was a barn with an open door so I popped in and took shelter while it passed. Then it was out onto the road for the rest of the day via a brief rest at the hotel bar in Rosehall. The afternoon brought some strong winds and rain as I trudged over the pass and 8miles later the outskirts of Lairg finally came into view.
I checked into the B&B, showered and then had a craving for fresh fruit. Satisfied with an orange and nectarine for pudding I went to bed.
I took a planned rest day in Lairg to pick up my next food parcel and secondly as I was still suffering with a rotten gut and one of my tick bites had come up in a rash I decided to head to the doctor. He thought it was a prolonged case of gastroenteritis and furnished me with antibiotics for potential Lyme disease.