Ok, the title is “Alison in Sutherland“.
Last Thursday, under grey clouds, I hoisted my rucksack on my shoulders and waited by Dornoch Bridge for the X25 bus from Inverness to appear. It rounded the corner and jumping off was my final walking companion of the trip. Alison has been one of my most encouraging friends during my walk. I was delighted to see her, looking bright as a button after her long sleeper train journey from London.
On our first day we walked from Dornoch Bridge to Bonar Bridge. As we crossed over the Dornoch Firth we entered into Sutherland. This region of Scotland has Britain’s lowest population density – two people per square kilometre. (Not helped by the fact that hundreds of people were forcibly evicted from their homes in the 1800, to make way for sheep. What would this place looks like if that hadn’t have happened? Orkney, with it’s vibrant farmland?) Sutherland is a land of big skies, prehistoric looking mountains rising out of nowhere, and Europe’s second largest area of blanket peat bog.
Some of our day involved walking on a road, which isn’t my favourite, but we also walked through the grounds of Skibo Castle (now an exclusive members only golf club and hotel), and also had a lovely walk alongside Loch Migdale. Alison renamed the latter Loch Midgedale, as the humid conditions brought out the little blighters to ruin our afternoon cake picnic.
Bonar Bridge gave us a surprise. We ate at a little restaurant, and had the most delicious meal of my journey so far, as well as a really charming welcome from the couple who run The Crannag. If you are in the area, it’s well worth going out of your way to eat here. We had scallops which were only 2 hours out of the water. Two days later, more scallops from the same batch will be served at Gordon Ramsay’s eateries in London. If you’d prefer your scallops much fresher, softer, (and cheaper!), then come to Bonar Bridge.
Next day we rolled along at a slower pace – it was that fabulous dinner! – to Lairg. It wasn’t far and we arrived early enough to spend an hour at the visitor centre. There we had difficulty concentrating on the long texts on the wall about the history of Lairg (it was interesting though), and instead we spent most of the time completing a children’s history activity. We scored 4 out of 5. Later on, Alison whipped me at a wooden 3D version of Connect 4 in a cafe. (Uggh, I couldn’t believe I got beaten twice!)
On Saturday morning Alison caught the train back to Inverness, from where she flew back south. She left me with a super bag of goodies – raisins, chocolates and snack bars. I tramped on north up a single track B road through increasingly lonely and wild landscapes to the Crask Inn. I’m really chuffed that Alison came up to walk with me. We had a great time together and it is just fantastic to share this experience with friends and family. Thank you, Alison!
Crask Inn is an incredible place. A small inn that lies completely on its own, in a wide lonely landscape, miles from any other villages. (And it has no website. Isn’t that wonderful). I’d phoned up a week earlier to book a room. They were full, but on hearing I was a long distance walker, the landlady said I could stay in their garden shed if I wished, which had a simple mattress and duvet. Short of options, and touched by their willingness to help walkers, I decided to give the shed a go. It would be an experience.
It was cold and turning rainy and misty when I arrived. My shed was indeed basic, and not the most spotless dwelling you’ve ever seen. But, it was a most welcome bed for the night. The inn was full of Audax cyclists who were completing a 200 mile challenge. Over the following couple of hours, small batches of cyclists hobbled in, wet and cold and tired, to get their papers stamped, and to fill up on macaroni cheese and soup, specially cooked up for them by Mike and Kay, the kindest inn hosts I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. They invited me in to their kitchen whilst they had a tea break, and gave me a brew and a big chunk of cake. I offered to help prepare supper, as there was just the two of them and they were rather full to the gills with guests that night. But they coped just fine, and an excellent meal was served up to a very varied group of guests. (It’s worth noting that Kay and Mike are farmers first and foremost, who happen to live in a pub, and wish to keep the pub alive and folk fed and watered in a remote spot. It is an amazing and unique place to visit). I sat with a long distance cyclist and three hardy hillwalkers from Aberdeen. Earlier in the evening I was thrilled to see George Berwick appear, the last of the Audax cyclists for the day. I’d heard an interview with George on the radio – he’s a 72 year old Glaswegian cyclist who has ridden 750,000 miles over the last 50 years. That’s not a typo.
I awoke the next morning to driving rain and an increasingly wild wind. The day ahead involved my last hill pass, crossing east to take me down past Loch Choire to a tiny place called Kinbrace. It’s a long walk – about 22 miles to the tarmac B road near Kinbrace. As I sat in the warm kitchen at the Crask Inn, chatting to Mike and scoffing porridge, I realised I did have a plan B up my sleeve. Ian and Celeste were due to arrive and spend the final week of my mainland adventure with me. They’d made better time than expected, so I was able to get picked up after breakfast. It was great to see Ian, and as the rain lashed down all day I felt glad not to be out on the hill.
The walk would have been ok, but I knew the walk would be particularly beautiful, so I was happy to delay a day and thus be able to see the views the following day, rather than plod along in the mist. The bonus was that Ian and I drove back down to Lairg and I beat him four times at the 3D connect four – a substitute revenge for defeat at the hands of Alison!
Yesterday I was able to set out across the moor in much better weather. As Ian dropped me off I met Mike, the Crask Inn landlord, who informed me that another End to End walker named Grant had stayed that night, and had set out an hour and a half before me. Could I catch Grant? It was still a bit rainy, but there were clear spells, and the visibility was much better. After 4 somewhat boggy miles, I reached the beallach (Scottish and Irish term; it takes up two words in English – mountain pass). What views. A wild lonely brace of lochs were down beneath me. Another few miles passed, gorgeous walking alongside the two lochs, with small waterfalls, fierce after the previous day’s storm, gushing down the lower slopes of Ben Klibreck (one of the most northerly Munros – 3,000 ft mountains).
I reached Loch Choire Lodge in good time, and set off down a sandy track on the final 10 miles to the road, where Celeste would be waiting. The lodge is in a wonderful spot, and is so remote that even Post Buses don’t deliver there. Unfortunately it burned down a few months ago. I saw plenty of deer footprints on the track, and indeed, the bambis themselves appeared in plentiful numbers on the hill slopes. Also, Grant’s boot print appeared from time to time. Suddenly I got a mobile signal, and was able to make a call to Ian, asking him to invite Grant aboard Celeste for a coffee and cake, if he were to see a walker appear. (There was no one else about walking in these hills, just me and Grant).
After a couple of hours of glorious views of lochs, deer, hills, mountains, and moors, I spied Celeste, and gradually drew near. When I did arrive, there was a rucksack outside the door. Grant and Ian were supping a brew and chatting about this amazing journey that is the trek through Britain. It was a real pleasure to meet Grant. It turned out that he’d been hearing about my existence since a B&B lady on the Welsh-English border said there was a solo female also on the trail. Then, on the Pennine Way, he’d met my friends Annette and Tony who accompanied me on a very wet day from Horton-in-Ribblesdale to Hawes. Funny isn’t it, how news of walkers can travel the length of the country. Ian pondered this today and said that it made him realise how news and gossip many centuries back would have travelled in a similar fashion – from person to person, carried by travellers and shared by locals.
Anyhow, Grant, like me, was full of the joys of the walk, and in a reflective mood as he neared the finish. He said that he’d mixed feelings – looking forward to the feeling of achievement at finishing, but also savouring every last day, and in a way, wishing it would never end. I could have chatted for hours, but Grant had another few miles to walk before his wild camp. I felt a proper wimp as I chilled out on Celeste that evening, with Ian cooking up a feast for supper.
Grant also said that he’d had to overcome a battle in his own head of competitiveness. I have had exactly the same thing. I’ll explain. This long walk is described in a couple of guidebooks, one of which sticks to a two month schedule. Two months to walk 1,200 miles involves every day being over 25 miles or so. That’s really hard going. Also, there are lots of blogs. There isn’t an official route, so you take your pick from the advice available. Or ignore it completely, should you wish (as I did for some bits of my walk through Scotland). And you meet or hear of other people currently walking the LEJOG. In my case, I’ve never passed anyone; other people have passed me. I’m very fit by now and certainly capable of walking long hard days. Those who know me well will know that I’m a competitive person. I like a challenge and to push myself hard. But there’s another side to me that says, ‘Hang on, Flora, you are only going to do this walk once. It’s NOT a race. You are doing it in the main because you love this beautiful country, and you want to see it, smell it and hear it up close. It’s not a race‘. Learning to listen to my own advice hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve been successful in the main, and thinking back on it now, that’s an achievement in itself. Ian has been an enormous help to me as he always keeps telling me to enjoy each individual day, rather than think too much about the overall challenge.
Today I had a simple day, heading north up an A road to a little place called Forsinain. When I type ‘A’ road, it sounds like a bad place to walk. However I spent most of the few hours walking in the middle of the road without a care in the world. It is a single track road, and in the early morning (I set off at 5 am, and jogged the first few miles before I saw sense), the traffic averaged out at 2 vehicles per hour.
I even saw a group of 5 stags just yards away, having their breakfast beside the railway line. It truly is a wonderful, peaceful place up here. At 4.30 in the morning, when Ian and I got up, the sun turned the moors a warm red, deer grazed a hundred yards from us, rabbits played in the road. Magic.
Finally, if you have a few seconds to spare in your day, please would you pop over to Grant’s Justgiving web page and sponsor him. I know from the last few months that any small gesture of support brings such a warm feeling and a big smile – a donation of even £1 is appreciated. He’s raising money for three different causes, so all you need to do is choose one (or several) and click on ‘Donate Now’. (Or pop onto Twitter and say well done). Grant is a really lovely guy, and will finish on Thursday – an incredible achievement.