We rose later than usual thanks to Angus’s expert dark arts of blocking up the windows. The van is quite cosy with two big lads in it, we certainly haven’t been cold on this trip, but you’ve got to be good friends. I’m sure this morning in particular we got some raised eyebrows from a whole bus tour as we both tumbled out into the center of a town rather than a discrete layby in the wilderness.
After a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs and sausage sarnies we drove on, aiming for John O’Groats. Soon after departing we came across George, a wonderfully understated scotsman, peddling away up the road. We slowed to give him truly our best wishes in his journey and to look after himself. We met in the bar last night. He was a good chap and we spent most of the night talking to him about his travels and our journey so far. George was also doing the North 500 route, on a spare mountain bike he had. It was not the sort of bike you would see anyone else road riding, but he was just getting on with it because that’s what he had and this was what he wanted to do. He was averaging 50 miles per day, which when you consider the roads and terrain was amazing. That day he had peddled a gain in altitude of over 2700m. It was pretty impressive as I’m not sure we had even covered 30 miles that day.
We had other things in common with George too, like a mutual love of the mountains. For years he had spent climbing all the Munroe’s in Scotland, all 282 of them. Some, he said, you could tick off a few in a day as they linked up. Inadvertently, Angus and I had done 2 Monroe’s earlier in the week, only another 280 to go… Now George had completed all the Munroe’s he was starting on the Corbetts and doing other challenges like cycling the North 500 or across the widest part of scotland, all with a dodgy knee that he had had replaced a couple years ago. He was an amazing example of getting on with your dreams and making them happen. Oh, I should also mention, he was 67 years old…. That might give you an idea of the level of awe and respect we held for him, and why we wanted to wish him all the best.
We listened to a Terry Pratchett audio book, The Night Watch. It had been on in the van a few times and I was quite enjoying finding out what was going to happen next. An obligatory stop was Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on the mainland UK. It was basically a big mound of grass under which we supposed there was a military base because of all the vents and hatches dotted around the hillside amongst a few buildings. Some of these had been bricked shut but it looked like others were still in use. We conspired that those abandoned buildings doors, while looking down trodden and rotting, had freshly oiled, silent hinges and armour plating behind them. The MOD wouldn’t let such a tactical position go to ruin, would they? Maybe the audiobook was writing fiction into my reality but it was quite fun to imagine in any case.
John O’Groats was our next stop for lunch, so called because an industrious chap had started a ferry here many years ago and charged a Groat to cross to Orkney. It was now a small port for one or two fishermen and the sea tours for the masses visiting Scotland. It was suggested that we could do a sea tour but I reminded Angus that this would result in a very vomitty Me for the rest of the day so the idea was abandoned.
This part of the world has changed massively since I was last here with Eddy in 2008 (i think). Back then, there was only a rotting hotel with small car park, a hut with a gift shop and a chap sitting in a wooden booth next to the iconic white signpost that marked the end of the road. For more money than it was really worth, he would put your home town up on the sign with the distance away and take your photo, presented in the kind of cardboard sleeves that school photos are. In 2013/4 (I can’t remember) I was up this end of the world with another motorbiking mate. That time I was unlucky enough to break down about 60 miles from John O’Groats so I didn’t get to see the sign or the changes that had occurred.
It was saddening to see that, whilst the sign post was still there with the chaps hut, it had a depressing notice pinned to it stating that the business was for sale. Weeds had grown up around the site and it was roped off, clearly abandoned to decay. This original sign was being completely ignored in favor of the new sign that stood next to the newly refurbished and now quite funky looking hotel. There was no booth or place to have your hometowns distance added to it, but then also, digital photography meant that it was so easy to snap a selfie, an official photographer was redundant. The carpark had also doubled in size and small buildings around the edge would sell you an assortment of trinkets, most of which have no use and have cliche messages like “Don’t let your dreams pass you by, Seize the day!” which I find a little insulting coming from the stunted dreams of a fridge magnet.
An unexpected delight was a stop we made to investigate Duncansby Stacks. Huge, teeth-like stacks of rock rising from the sea, like the open mouth of some mythical beasty. They say, that Lord Duncansby lost his 2 canine teeth in a bar fight and the assailant tossed them into the ocean, cursing him. Now they stand proudly in defiance of the ocean having grown into these magnificent stacks, but that could be bullshit Angus and I made up.
We also took a wander along the coast to find a decaying castle. The owner must have woken up one day and realised just how close the coastal erosion was getting. They had built another castle about 300m further inland and abandoned this one. Surprisingly, it must have been standing abandoned for a long time before even one wall collapsed because the wildlife were treating it as their own and grass and small trees were growing out of it. We took some photos and enjoyed the architecture from safely behind the farmer’s fence, as the Danger, Keep Out sign dictated.
Now, I am sitting in my Bex Van, as the rain patters on the roof, writing this. We stopped a bit earlier today and I spent 20 mins trying desperately to lasso a tree to string a hammock. When I had finally done it, the rope stretch meant I hit the ground, and then it started raining. I probably only enjoyed it for about 10 mins before giving up and hiding away from the coming storm in the van.