The runners

Walking through Cornwall. Destination John O'Groats, then Shetland!

Walking through Cornwall. Destination John O’Groats, then Shetland!

On this day one year ago I was in Cornwall. I’d just passed the 100 mile mark, and had over a thousand miles still to crunch under my boots. I felt uncertain about my capacity to walk such a long way. But I was already learning that the best way to cope with the self doubt that accompanies any sizeable and exciting challenge is to focus all my attention on what’s around me. Paying attention to the day ahead, the next footstep, the views, the next meal….these are all the simple but incredibly effective ways to harness that most powerful muscle of all, the mind.

Today, I’m six days away from running my first marathon; 26.2 miles along the Brighton seafront. My good friend Alison and I have spent the entire winter focussing on the next footstep, trying not too think about the fact that in April we will run further than we ever have done in our lives before. I said a while back that I think that the training IS the marathon. Well, we’ve succeeded in doing the training. Since the start of December I’m amazed to report that neither of us has missed a single training session. We’ve completed the whole thing, which jointly means that over the last four months we have:

  • Cycled 600 miles
  • Run 780 miles*
  • Plus all the stretching and lifting at the gym, and mindless turbo sessions
Perfect perfect early morning run in the Cairngorms, just a week ago

Perfect perfect early morning run in the Cairngorms, just a week ago

Whatever happens on Sunday, I’m ever so proud of our determination, and the fact that we have enjoyed our training so much. We’ve run through rain, howling wind, through knee high floodwater, snow. We’ve run in Kent, East Yorkshire, London, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire. We’ve run along the sandy paths of New Forest, along the trails of the North Yorkshire Moors, over the fells of the Peak District, and through a hill pass in the Scottish Highlands. We have learnt to love running. We have learned how to eat. We are both fitter and stronger than we’ve ever been at any time in our lives before. We have become runners.

The small crowd that was there early on, cheering us on through your sponsorship has become a much bigger crowd. We are both so grateful. And if you’ve not done so, it’s not too late to sponsor us.  I’m fundraising for the MS Society, and Alison is fundraising for Mind.

*A small coincidence:
I looked back at my diary and realised that this is the mileage I had done on the day I crossed the Scottish border last May. Lands End to the border – the length of England – was 780 miles exactly.

Shetland bird attack

Glancing down at the notes that I keep on my phone, to remind me of things to write up for my blog, I see that I have quite a lot of things on my list.  Hope you are sitting comfortably – this is a long post!

Car atlases are probably the main maps we look at.  The Orkney and Shetland islands are almost always an inset on our maps.  It’s hard to grow up with a realistic idea of exactly where they are. John O’Groats seemed like a long way north when I arrived there last weekend.  But the northern isles disappear off into the far distance.  Open up your Google Map (or whatever you use), and take a look.  You’ll see that the top of the Shetlands is about as far away from the top of the Scottish mainland as Manchester is from London.  Circle your finger around a globe and you’ll see that the Shetland islands are level with Anchorage in Alaska, with the far north of Canada, with Greenland, and halfway up Norway.

My goal was to get to the northernmost of the Shetland islands – an island called Unst.  My feet had run their course, so it was ferries and buses for me.  But it still felt like quite an adventure.  From John O’Groats I took a passenger ferry over to the southernmost Orkney island.  It just took 40 minutes, as the Orkneys are quite near to the mainland.  Then it was onto a bus to Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney.  In the evening I caught another ferry which steamed north for 7 hours, all through the night, to reach Lerwick, the capital of Shetland.  I got a few hours sleep on the floor of the lounge, but mainly looked out of the window, mesmerised by the blue sky at midnight.

Old fishing houses in Lerwick

Old fishing houses in Lerwick

After half a day sightseeing in Lerwick I took a bus north to Unst.  It was a two hour journey, and included two ferry crossings, since we needed to travel through the island of Yell, as well as the northern mainland, before reaching Unst.  Shetland is composed of a melting pot of different types of geology, (it was once part of America), and thus the scenery of each island varies a great deal.  Yell, to my eyes, looked grim.  Boggy and barren and dark.

Once ensconced in a cosy little hotel in Unst, well, the only hotel in Unst, I had two days to explore. The first day I walked 14 miles (not done with the walking yet!), and reached the point at which I could  no longer travel northwards.  Apart from the wonderful and wild Muckla Flagga lighthouse in front of me, nothing stood between me and the North Pole.  Quite a feeling.  The second day I walked to another northern peninsula, and stood on Britain’s most northerly beach.

I hired a bicycle so as to be able to cover more ground.  My thinking was that I am fit as a fiddle, so it would be a doodle, and refreshing to bike about rather than walk.  Hmm.  I am fit, but fitness is a very specific thing.  Boy, did I struggle with that heavy mountain bike – even up small inclines.  It was still fun though.

Muckla Flagga

Muckla Flagga

The walk over the moorland to Muckla Flagga was interesting.  It was the only place on Unst where I came across other walkers.  There were about 12 cars parked up when I arrived on foot to the place where people normally set out for the 6 mile circuit.  It was sunny, and to me, quite a warm day.  So I was in rolled up trousers and a T shirt.  To my surprise, every single walker I passed was kitted out as if for a day in the Himalayas.  Down jackets, winter mittens, woolly hats, soft-shell winter trousers.  The lot.  They were all keen bird watching people, I think.  So perhaps bird folk feel the cold more.  I don’t know.  They looked at me as if I was a weirdo.  The scenery was stunning though.  High cliffs, views for miles and miles of islands to the south, the North Atlantic in all its glory.  And the wildlife.  I knew before coming that Shetland is famous for its wildlife.  But you literally only have to stand in one place for a minute or two and you’ll see lots of birds.  Seals are all over.  And of course there are the very photogenic ponies.  Even the sheep are handsome.  I saw lots of Oyster Catchers, Wheatears, Fulmars, and Cormorants.  My favourite bird was the Arctic Tern, with its delicate lines and go faster pronged tail.  Oh, and of course the little chubby fellas with the orange beak.  I was standing at a cliff edge (not on my phone this time), looking out to sea, when all of a sudden I became away of something waddling towards me, just 6 feet away.  I looked down to see a dear little Puffin.  Before I could say hello he disappeared, like some Alice in Wonderland creature, down his burrow.

However.  However, there was a bird that I took a dislike to.  This is probably not the done thing as one maybe ought to be super excited and reverential about seeing the biggest colony in the world of its type.  I’m talking about the Great Skua.  They come to the Orkneys, Shetland, and the Outer Hebrides every summer to breed.  And the Hermaness peninsula on Unst is their capital city.  These are hen size birds, which have a shape like the Batman symbol when they fly.  They are known to be aggressive, both to other birds and to humans.  There were so many Great Skuas on Hermaness, as well as other birds, that it felt like one of those places in which for once, us humans were very much the weaker species.  They sit, with cheeky faces, right on the path, so that you have to divert around them, so as not to incur their wrath.  On my walk, I’d finally crested a hill and come to the point at which I could see Muckla Flagga lighthouse.  For me, an exciting moment.  So I wasn’t paying attention to all these evil looking flying menaces.  Oh lordy me!  Swoosh! Squawk!  A dark shape getting larger above me.  It’s an angry Great Skua, coming straight for me.  I know I’m a lot larger than the bird, but when you have a nasty looking oversized bird flying straight at you, at speed, I can tell you, it’s not pleasant.  Did I stay and fight my corner?  Nope, I ran, swearing at the ghastly bird.  Fumbling, I undid my rucksack straps as I scarpered across the moor, and waved it over my head.  Partly as a weapon and mainly to protect my head from the bird with an anger management problem.  Luckily the creature gave up the chase and I was able to resume my walk, this time, more careful about where I trod.  Its very politically incorrect to say this, but I wondered what a small cull might do to put them in their place.  Would they taste good with bread sauce?  Probably a bit fishy.  (Bird loving folk, please don’t take me too seriously at this point).

What else to report?  That I chanced upon a weekly high tea, served in the church hall.  Three pounds got me a place at a beautifully laid table, groaning with cakes, and as much tea as I could drink.  “Keep eating, we don’t want to take any home with us” insisted the lovely ladies of the church. After 14 miles of walking, a Great Skua chase, and 6 miles of cycling a heavy bicycle, I took their request so seriously that I ended up rounding my contribution up to a fiver as I felt guilty for the amount of scones and drop scones that I consumed.  Homemade rhubarb jam too.  It was heaven.  Plus, the locals were ever so friendly.  First I met a school teacher couple, who told me of their annual trips with the children over to Norway.  There are close ties with Norway here.  But for an inability to pay a marriage dowry back in the 1400s, this would still be Norwegian territory.  The couple were keen geocachers, and explained this activity to me.  It sounded a bit like a modern, electronic version of a message in a bottle.  They left, leaving me to eat more scones.  And a very jolly lady with a badge proclaiming she’d just turned 70, appeared.  To my amazement she’d heard of my grandfather, when she was a district nurse on the island of Foula in the 70s.  (My grandfather was a Swedish artist, who painted the landscapes lonely Atlantic islands, as well as the beautiful Stockholm Archipelago).  Swedish connection established, she then kindly took me back to her house to look at a book that some other visiting Swedes had left her.  Then she drove me to see the Swedish Stone, a monument to a large Swedish herring fishing community that once lived on the island.  The small sound around which a small community now lives, used to hum with thousands of boats and workers each summer, around the turn of the 1900s.  Amazing to imagine.  But this was the case all around the islands which border the Atlantic – Cornwall, Scotland, Iceland, Norway – all had herring ports and thousands of migratory fishing boats and workers.  Until we ate up all the herring.

Changing tack, I was caught in the act of locking up my bicycle. Seems like an innocuous thing to do.  And the bike hire place had instructed me to use the lock whenever I left the bike somewhere.  But when I first went to lock it, a passing couple explained that people would be offended.  Apparently, locking things like bicycles, cars, or your front door, is rude as it implies that you distrust your fellow man.  My impromptu tour guide said that she’d not locked her door in a year.  And in fact, a year ago she had a new front door installed, and she was unsure as to how it actually did lock.

Another aspect of the Shetlands that I love is the accents and place names.  I feel I’m somewhere quite foreign.  More like Scandinavia than Scotland.  The accents are different from Orkney, which is special too.  Here, I really struggle to understand people talking in full dialect.  One evening in the hotel, a local couple got chatting to two tourists over dinner.  Once the tourists had gone, I was really interested to hear the local couple’s dialect change and become loads broader and pretty much unintelligible (to me).  It’s a lovely, lilting, soft language to listen to.  There are quite a few Norwegians and Swedes among the tourists here, so that also adds to the linguistic mixture and the Scandinavian feeling.  The visitors harbour in Lerwick is full of Swedish and Norwegian yachts.  The architecture too, is a juxtaposition of stone built stolid grey dwellings and colourful wooden Scandic buildings.

Bobby's bus shelter

Bobby’s bus shelter

The next on my list is Bobby’s bus shelter.  It’s become one of Unst’s tourist attractions, but it is a working bus shelter.  I walked passed it as I headed up to the top of the island.  The full story is best told by Bobby himself – the bus shelter has its own website.  In essence, as a 7 year old, Bobby wrote a letter complaining about the poor state of the bus shelter to the local paper.  A new one was installed, so all well and good.  But then a mystery person put a sofa and a table in it.  And things ballooned from there.  Do have a read of the story, because it is lovely.

Talking of buses, the mini bus to Unst is quite special.  Both on the way in and returning south today, I found paying for my fare quite hard.  Basically, people get on the bus, sometimes mumble something to the driver about where they wish to disembark.  But not always.  In some cases it seems that the driver is required to be psychic.  But no one pays when they get on.  Instead, at a time of their choosing during the journey, they wander forward and hand the coins to the driver.  Or they pass the coins to other passengers, to hand on up the bus to the driver.  Usually, no one speaks.  All very odd!

Little Flora on Skaw beach

Little Flora on Skaw beach

On my last day in Unst, I walked to a small beach, Skaw beach.  The only inhabitants of the beach were families of eider ducks, with adolescent ducklings in tow, bobbing about on the shoreline. The sand is a wonderful pink colour, from the ground down reedy-pink granite that’s only found here – Skaw Granite.  It was formed when magma forced its way into existing older rocks and then cooled down.  I chose a shell and some small pieces of granite.  Then I got my other two shells out of my rucksack, and Little Flora, and my two Peckham bus tickets.  These, along with the shamrock necklace that the brilliant people at Best Western Hotels and Beacon Purchasing gave me when I departed, are my lucky items.  I’m afraid that I have a mental age of about 7 when it comes to lucky things.  I have worn my necklace every single day of my journey.  The bus tickets are old, ’60s or ’70s London bus tickets, given to me by Bernard the B&B owner from near Newquay.

The three shells

The three shells

I chose a shell on the Isles of Scilly, and wrote the date and place inside it. When I got to John O’Groats I did the same.  Now, in Unst, I found a third shell.  When I get home I think I’ll probably try and glue all three to a little map of the UK, and frame it.

After my explorations of Unst I travelled back to Lerwick (that bus again, and the two ferry rides).  Lerwick is a super little place, again, full of names that make it seem exotic.  Like Da Wheel – a pub.  And the Peerie Cafe – the little cafe.  And the Peerie Cake Shop – the little cake shop.  It has a busy working atmosphere, and there are two ‘floaters’ moored here.  Floatels are floating accommodation units.  Shetland is experiencing good times, with BP expanding its operations here to the tune of 500 new jobs, and unemployment is the lowest in Scotland, basically negligible.  The floaters are temporary accommodation to house the influx of workers.

Last night I hopped onto a ferry, and steamed south for 14 hours, to Aberdeen. I’ve just met a friend for breakfast, and from here I’ll catch the train back down to Yorkshire.  It’s VERY strange to be travelling south rather than north.  I’ve been heading north ever since the 28th of March.  Basically through all of the spring and half the summer.  I’ve been in Scotland since the start of June.  I’ve got used to the 20 or so hours of light, and the vast open landscapes, the hills, the cries of the oystercatchers and the continual accompaniment of skylarks high above my head.  And the simple goal; get to the top of Britain.  By tomorrow evening I’ll be home, in lush, flat Holderness.  There will be tall trees, green grass, and traffic on the roads.  I’m happy to be going home.  I have a ‘mission accomplished’ feeling.  A feeling of contentment and gratitude.  Later on I’ll write a little bit more in another blog post about what I learnt about long walks.

The cliffs at the top

On Saturday I finished the main part of my journey – the walk from Lands End to John O Groats.  I wrote up a quick blog post and posted a couple of pictures.  What I didn’t do was give an account of my last couple of days walking.

I took my last section extremely slowly, even by my standards.  Once I reached the North Sea, near Wick, I only had 13 or so miles to go.  Due to a combination of enjoying the walk so much that I didn’t want to finish, and also wanting to end in fine weather, I split the 13 miles into two short half days.  On Friday it poured down all morning, so I set off at 3.30pm and walked for a couple of hours until I reached a little parking area by the cliffs, just north of Keiss.  (Pronounced Kyss). A fantastic seaside spot that Celeste and us had to ourselves all night.  And then on Saturday morning I set off at 5.30am for my final 8 miles.

The walk was along a beach and then cliff tops.  There’s no path from here to John O Groats, until about a mile or so before Duncansby Head (just by John O Groats).  This makes for rather rough walking in parts. However I was really pleased that I chose this coastal route, as opposed to the more popular road walking finish.  Only a couple of miles of it were a touch awkward, involving wading through waist high cow parsley, and an interesting bit where I had to cling to a sheep wire fence in order to cross a ditch, with the cliffs falling away beneath me.  Otherwise it was all fine and mainly grass or heather.  It’s a lot slower to walk on than the road, but I saw absolutely no one, and it was stunning.  I hope some of the photos below do it justice.

During my last few miles I decided to listen to my Olympics Opening Ceremony soundtrack.  (Seeing as the Olympics were one of the things that inspired me to do this walk).  As I walked, staring at my phone to find the right album, I suddenly stopped short.  I had been two steps away from walking right off the 200 metre high cliff.  What a way to go that would have been!  Three miles from John O Groats.  Serves me right for looking at my phone.  Anyway, I enjoyed the music and shed a tear or three as I reflected on my journey.  I didn’t feel numb or have mixed feelings.  I just felt elated and very happy.

Then all of a sudden I was there, at John O Groats, and rushing into Ian’s arms.  Yes, there were more tears.

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To the sea

Currently I have a craze for macaroni cheese. I can tell you that there is nothing better in this world than to walk 20 odd miles and then to jump aboard Celeste and be greeted by a big smile from Ian and a hot bowl of macaroni cheese. Plus a cup of tea. It’s heaven.

I know I’m a softie for not camping the whole way, and for having had the support of Ian visiting from time to time. But my feet have still covered 1,173 miles to date and the main thing is that I have thoroughly enjoyed almost every single day of my journey.


Loch More

Loch More

I missed out an important detail from Alison’s two days with me. In Bonar Bridge we popped into a little hardware store. Our eyes nearly popped out of our heads. There was STUFF everywhere. I have never seen so many lines of stock in a shop. The next day we went back and had a little competition to see which of us could spot the most unusual item for a hardware shop to sell. I went for the range of ladies handbags. Alison went for the ancient disused cashpoint machine. I love shops like that.

From Foisinain, where you left me at the end of my last post, I walked east along sandy forestry tracks to Loch More. For the 16.5 miles of the walk, I saw no one. Half way through I passed a remote train station, Altnabreac, where there is a lodge and a couple of dwellings. (Only accessible by train or an 8 mile drive up the forestry track). Mainly I could see miles and miles and miles of peat bog, some forests, and shapely peaks in the distance. Some might find this place desolate. I thought it was vast and beautiful. The skies here seem bigger, and I relished the space. This area on the Sutherland-Caithness border is one of the world’s biggest areas of peat blanket, and is now recognised as being important for storing carbon:

The Flow Country is a large expanse of peat bog in Caithness and Sutherland. Covering 4000 square kilometres, it is the largest area of blanket bog in Europe. Dating from the end of the last ice age, the bog has developed due to the damp, acid conditions that have encouraged the growth of sphagnum moss. As the moss rots it slowly forms peat. The same conditions that cause peat to form make the Flow Country unsuitable for farming and the area has been largely preserved from human development. In the 1980s, some areas of the bog habitat were planted with forestry but the introduction of non-native conifers and artificial drainage have dried out the peat, contributing to its erosion. Large areas of these plantations have been felled and attempts are being made to restore them to blanket bog. (Source: BBC, ‘Scotland’s Landscape’)

Loch More's beaches

Loch More’s beaches

Ian had driven to the end of the narrow tarmac road at Loch More. We had the most fantastic wild camp aboard Celeste. The loch rippled in the wind in front of us, the sheets of bog cotton nodded and swayed, birds sang. Once a couple of fishermen had departed, we had the place to ourselves. I don’t know if there’s a better spot in all of Britain. Shhh, don’t tell anyone about it. There are even sandy beaches beside the loch.

Perfect camp at Loch More

Perfect camp at Loch More

Yesterday I walked north east from Loch More to the North Sea. After 5 miles I left the Flow Country behind and entered the northeastern, coastal part of Caithness, which is farming country. IMG_3360There was no easy way of avoiding tarmac, but the little single track roads were dead quiet, and the sun warmed my back. Plus I had my macaroni cheese to look forward to! A friendly ghillie stopped to chat and said that it was particularly dry this year, and that’s why the peatlands were white with bog cotton. Apparently bog cotton flowers especially well in dry weather.

Caithness cattle

Caithness cattle

It took me 21 miles to reach the North Sea, and at that point I decided to call it quits for the day. I’ve now only 17 or so miles to go to John O Groats. Easily doable in one day, but perhaps I’m enjoying myself so much I’m putting it off. I have decided to split it into two half days walking. My excuse is that yesterday’s gorgeous hot day has been replaced by pouring rain this morning, so Ian and I are off to the laundrette in Wick. (Both Katie and Alison, who accompanied me in Staffordshire and Sutherland respectively, commented with surprise about the clean appearance of my clothes and pack. So I’ve now got to keep up my Clean Hiker status). I should thus finish the main part of my journey tomorrow.

I’ve not wanted to bang on about it during the last few months, but as well as doing this journey for the sheer pleasure of seeing the country on foot, I wanted to raise some money for an excellent cause. It’s the Mending Broken Hearts fund, run by the British Heart Foundation. They are well on track for being able to help mend heart muscle damage that people suffer during heart attacks. This muscle damage takes away people’s fitness and thus their ability to lead a normal life after a heart attack. All the details and explanation are on my Virgin Giving page. Many many of you have already sponsored me, and you’ve raised £2,275 !!! so far. THANK YOU!!! For anyone else who would like to sponsor me, just click on this link and then click ‘Donate Now’. I would be extremely grateful.

Alison in Wonderland

Alison by Loch Midgie

Alison by Loch Midgie

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.

IMG_3237Some 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.

Alison victorious

Alison victorious

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.

My abode for the night

My abode for the night

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. IMG_3253They 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.

Substitute revenge - against poor Ian

Substitute revenge – against poor Ian

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. IMG_3276After 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).

IMG_3289I 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).

Every time I see peat bog wood I think of my dear friend Bernadette's father, Jude

Every time I see peat bog wood I think of my dear friend Bernadette’s father, Jude

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.

Celeste at 4.45 am

Celeste at 4.45 am

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.

'Hey, leave us alone, it's breakfast time'

‘Hey, leave us alone, it’s breakfast time’

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.