Monday, 1 June 2015

Berriedale to Latheron

After we had delivered John and Wendy Trueman to Helmsdale station for their train back to Inverness and flight back to Gatwick, and after picking up everything from the hotel, Susan dropped me off at Berriedale. The two streams which meet there were still in full spate following the previous day’s rain.

The river mouth at Berriedale
When I had walked down into Berriedale the day before I had seen the road climb up the other side of the valley, and thought it looked rather daunting. It was a climb, of course, but not as lengthy or steep as I had anticipated. Looking down into a valley can presumably give false impressions of how deep they are. So it was only a little over half an hour for me to reach the high point – in terms of altitude – for the day. That was on a small minor road that spared me from the A9 for a mile or so. Always a welcome diversion, even if it adds somewhat to the distance walked.

Inevitably after that it was back to the A9. It’s not too bad for most of the time, but you have to be focused. I make a habit of climbing up on to the verge whenever there’s oncoming traffic – and getting well away from the road when it’s trucks, of which there were more now that the weekend was over. The worst is when cars coming from behind overtake other vehicles, as they swing right over to my side of the road and pass uncomfortably close. So you quickly learn to be extra vigilant when there’s a stretch of straight toad which offers overtaking opportunities.

The harbour at Dunbeath
The road from here on passes smallholdings and houses every few hundred yards. The fields are small, the houses simple. But every once in a while there’s something rather more grand. For example, as I reached Dunbeath there was yet another castle on the coast, which obviously had its own pretty extensive estate with grand gates and workers scurrying back and forth on quad bikes. This was the only other time during the day when I was able to get off the A9 for a reasonable length of time, as the Castle’s driveway is a public road and runs parallel with the A9 into the village itself.

Dunbeath divides into three distinct bits: a high village of mainly modest and new houses high up on the South side of the river, an attractive little terrace on the North side of the valley set just above the river, and other houses down by the port. There are also newer houses on the high ground to the north as you climb up out of the valley. There also appears to be a hotel and pleasant walks by the river itself.

Getting closer!
The original plan had been for this to be a short day, and for me (and whoever accompanied me) to finish in Dunbeath. But as things turned out this was one of the days when I would be walking unaccompanied, and it seemed sensible to carry on and cut the distances for the following days. So it was on to Latheron, where the A9 leaves the coast and the A99 takes on coastal duties to Wick and then John O’Groats itself.

This was another four miles or so – all on the A9. There’s just no way of avoiding it up here. The fields were perhaps a little larger than those I had walked past earlier in the day, but there was no way one could navigate through them. The boundaries all run at right angles to the road, and there’s no space at the coast between barbed wire fences and the tops of the cliffs. It would be nice if the National Trust of Scotland emulated its equivalent south of the border and put some effort into securing rights of way along the coast. I’m sure it would make walking in this part of the world much more attractive and encourage tourism. Perhaps I should write to the great fish of Scotland and suggest this!

A successful bit of A9 avoidance
Anyway, the final stretch was straightforward, and I was in Latheron by early afternoon. The only snag was that there was no mobile service, so I had to call Susan from the newly opened Clan Gunn visitor centre. I have to confess that I did not spend any time looking at what they had on display. I was much more interested in getting to our B&B. It had become quite cloudy in the preceding half hour, and rain was threatening.

This was a pleasant enough house, right on the A99. There was nowhere nearby to eat, so that evening we drove to Watten (an intermediate point on the inland alternative route to John O’Groats) for what turned out to be a rather indifferent meal. Good lamb cutlets, but nothing else to recommend. It had been drizzling when we drove there, and actually raining when we arrived; by the time we left it was a deluge. On the long, almost deserted road back to our B&B the sides of the single track were completely flooded, and ghostly wind turbines appearing out of the mist made it even more surreal.

We were thoroughly grateful to get back unscathed, and even if there was traffic passing on the A99 in the night we were certainly too tired to hear it.

At long last bright and beautiful – unlike the rest of the UK. Clouding up with threat of overnight rain for the last half hour of the walk. 12 to 16C. 17.05 km, 322m of ascents and 233m of descents, including unsuccessful diversion down track. Almost all on A9 apart from short stretches on minor roads.

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