Day 46 Tues 14-06-2005
Helmsdale to Lybster
I was up early, and left the hostel at 6:45. I tried not to disturb the other guests; a couple of Americans and Europeans touring the area. The weather looked uncertain, not too bad, and the route today would be exclusively on the A9, perched between cliffs on one side, and hills on the other.
A steep climb was followed by seemingly endless road works, where the twists and turns of the road were being straightened and widened. Although good for local business and access, I felt that ultimately the attraction of this part of Scotland was it's remoteness, and felt that the march of progress was not always a wonderful thing.
The road descended steeply into the tiny village of Berriedale, and I was pleased to see a roadside cafe. I took shelter - it was lightly raining, and I asked the two women working there for the full Scottish breakfast. I overheard them chatting about the news, and found out from them that Michael Jackson had been acquitted - oh well, you can't win them all. I received a text from Ken, containing a joke in very bad taste about the prince of pop, and choked upon my bacon.
I had been warned about the long, steep climb out of Berriedale. As if to prove the point, there were escape routes for lorries entering the village to run off the road into gravel traps, if their brakes failed. However, after six weeks of walking, I didn't really notice the gradient, and wasn't even breathing heavily as I looked back down into the valley I had just climbed out of. I remembered back in Cornwall and Devon, when I would pause, gasping, at the slightest incline. Either I had got fitter, or there was more in that fry up than I realised.
From Helmsdale to John O'Groats was an easy three days walk, or a more ambitious two days. I wasn't sure where to stop for the night, but when I reached Dunbeath at noon, I knew it was too early to stop for the rest of the day. Further up the coast were a few tiny villages, I would walk on, and hope to find accommodation ahead. After a beer in Dunbeath, of course...
I entered the Dunbeath hotel, which was deserted. The door to the bar was locked, so I took a seat in the tiny reception. A man came in, presumably mine host. He rummaged around behind the desk, ignored me, and walked off again. A postwoman entered with the mail, and told me that there was another pub at the edge of the village. I set off in search of it.
I found the pub perched on cliffs, overlooking the sea. It looked rather quiet, and I went in. The bar was deserted, and after I shouted "Anyone home?" a guy emerged holding a mug of tea, and told me that the pub was shut. It had just changed hands, and he was doing some maintenance to the garden.
"I've got to have a pint!" I said.
"I've never pulled a pint" he replied.
"Now's your chance to have a go!"
Johnny was my benefactor, and we sat down, me with an expertly pulled pint, Johnny with his mug of tea. I said he had missed his vocation, and we chatted about our lives for three quarters of an hour. Johnny lived in Lybster, about six miles north up the road. He used to be a fisherman on the trawlers out of Wick, on the boat for ten days, then ten days off, and paid a share of the catch.
"Sometimes I'd come home flush - sometimes with nothing," he told me.
Unfortunately, Johnny had fallen into the hold, and, among other injuries, fractured his skull. He had to be airlifted to the nearest hospital - in one of the Scandinavian counties - which put paid to his days as a fisherman. I didn't mention it, but he was the third person I had met in Scotland who had recovered from a serious head injury.
As we finished our drinks, Johnny offered me a lift to Lybster. I explained why I couldn't accept, so he offered to find me a room at a B&B. It sounded good, Lybster was about the right distance away, and coincided with the point where I would leave the A9 and strike north inland, where there was precious little habitation.
I said goodbye, and left Johnny finishing off his work. The road to Lybster was not too busy, except for Johnny passing me in his car, waving and horn blasting. And a couple of cylists, heading to John O'Groats, who shouted encouragement to me, which I returned. Now everyone's route was converging on this northern tip of Scotland. Eventually I reached the turn to Lybster, which was stretched ribbon like along a road for about a mile down to the sea. Johnny was waiting for me! He insisted I accept a lift down to the centre of the village, as I would have to walk back in the morning, so wasn't cheating. We parked outside Brenda Gunn's B&B, where Johnny had asked her to keep a room for me. What a guy! I was really grateful to him, and shook his hand.
Brenda's B&B used to be a shop, and she sat me down and made me a coffee. We talked about the joys of teenage children, then Brenda showed me to a very nice room (downstairs - hooray), and I made myself comfortable.
At Five, I walked down to the harbour, which lay about a quarter of a mile apart from the village. The harbour was deserted, except for a young couple fishing, and a fisherman tending his lobster pots in his boat. I walked around, taking photos. It was a glorious evening, and I watched as the young woman fishing caught a Pollock, about seven inches long. She said she had never fished before, it was the first thing she had caught, and her partner said it would do for the cat!
The fisherman in his boat called out to me. I went over to see what he wanted.
"Would you like to take a trip round the bay?" he asked.
Is the pope a catholic??!!
"Yes please," I replied.
I love boats, on ferries I tend to spend most of the trip on deck, enjoying the sea air, but this tiny fishing boat was so much better. From the shore, the sea looked flat, but the boat bobs up and down on the swell - wonderful.
Douglas took "early release" from British Telecom, and has been after lobsters for just over a year. He tells me he is 58, but he looks at least ten years younger. He knows Johnny and Brenda, of course. He pulled in close to the shore to show me caves, which, in calmer seas, he can sail completely in to. He has a depth sounder, and GPS, which makes locating his pots much easier. Every day, Douglas hauls up 85 heavy pots. In summer they are close to the shore, but further out in winter.
When we get back to the harbour, I thank him profusely. Douglas offered to drive me back up to the village. He's on his way home for dinner, then back out to sea to put out the last few pots for the day. As we drive back up the tiny road, we pass another car coming down. Douglas stops to chat. The other driver asks if I am the Lejog walker! News travels fast round here!
I ate a fish and chip supper (my appetite is now huge, I could eat six meals a day if I could find them!) and retired to my room to watch TV. What a perfect day. And I plan to get to John O'Groats ... tomorrow!
Greys Place B&B