Friday, 5 June 2015

Wick to Auckengill

Sightseeing in Wick - the mash tub at the Old Poultney distillery.
John the distillery man, our guide Katie, and Susan
Alan and Rosemary Towers had arrived the previous evening to join me from the final two days of the walk. In view of the weather (awful) and the route ahead (dull, all unavoidable road walking) they must have had some doubts, but were too polite to voice them. Their loyalty is much appreciated.

So it was off in full battle gear on the road north. First stop – Tesco – for an unappealing selection of sandwiches and alternatives (sushi, in my case, which turned out to be awful as well). And then on with the route march.

The ruined abbey at Wick
There’s really not much positive to say about this part of the world – particularly in weather like this. It’s flat, dull. The houses are undistinguished; some seem as if they’re falling down, others look new but uninhabited. The dominant finish is grey pebbledash. You could be excused to think that no architect had ever made it north of Inverness.

The middle third of the walk was parallel with the dunes behind the wide sandy beaches of Reiss and Keiss. They’re largely hidden by the dune systems behind them. They would be delightful to walk on at low tide in fine weather, but even then there’s the problem of the River of Wester that neatly divides them from one another and would be impossible to ford. In conditions as they were there was no temptation to check them out.

The pipeline manufacturing line at Subsea 7
At the mid-point of the beach there’s a major industrial plant called Subsea 7. There’s a dead straight rail line from it stretching over four and a half miles inland, and I’d had no idea of its purpose. When we crossed it the rails seemed to have been lifted, but they were obviously still working on the track’s bed, with diggers and other heavy equipment laced ready for work. Fortunately an explanation was offered by a tiny plaque on the bridge that crosses the track. It’s a manufacturing plant for underwater pipeline clusters. Presumably great lengths are assembled on the track, and then pulled out to sea for the North Sea oil fields. I imagine that there’s not so much of this work nowadays, but the facility still seems active.

Keiss itself offered nothing. The Sinclair Bay Hotel looked very unwelcoming, and the shop didn’t offer the coffee we’d have welcomed. So it was onwards, with a brief stop at the village war memorial for a quick lunch.

Keiss Castle - in need of a lick of paint
Then it was past Keiss castle – or more accurately, castles. There’s an ancient ruin on the coast, and a newer (18th or 19th Century?) building set back from the shoreline. This shares the Scottish baronial style of Dunrobin and Dunbeath castles, but is in severe need of several coats of new paint. It looks rather sad.

The final stretch was back to the car park at Harbour Brock, just before Auckengill, where Alan had parked the car that morning before our walk. Just as we arrived the heavens opened, and we clambered waterlogged into Alan’s lovely new BMW. And then it was on by car to John O’Groats. It seems rather strange to arrive at one’s intended destination a day early, but there’s really no other accommodation on the way there.

Lighthouse at Dunnet Head
hat afternoon it was coffee at the rather good new cafĂ©, and then a trip to visit the new local boutique gin distillery in Dunnet (very interesting) and then to see the lighthouse and cliffs at Dunnet Head – the most northerly point of the British mainland. Here there are huge numbers of nesting seabirds on the ledges below – including several puffins where there was any room for a burrow.

So there’s only one day to go.

Wet, cold, miserable; not a trace of sunshine until well after we’d finished the day’s walking. 10 to 11C. 16.55 km; 130m of ascents and 93m of descents. A99 all the way.

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