Bettyhill to John O’Groats (59 miles)
The morning dawns a bit misty, but during breakfast and while we are getting ready it is clearing steadily and completely burns off to give us a bright sunny day within a short time of our setting off. We retrieve the tandem from the fuel store, note that there is only a light east wind and set off along the coast to freewheel down to the Bay. Between here and Thurso it will be fairly hard cycling because like many coastal roads this one is a roller coaster dipping up and down from sea level to much higher ground as we go. We have seven bays at sea level to visit and fourteen rivers running out from the south to the sea to cross. From Farr Bay, the first of these, we climb again over the hinterland of Farr Point and then on past Ardmore Point to drop down again to cross the two rivers flowing into Armadale Bay.
The landscape has a rough upland feel to it being mostly tumpy heathland, rock and rough grass. There are no signs of agriculture other than very rough grazing, but there are signs of peat being cut for fuel. It is not as dramatic as that of the previous few stages, but we have been so spoilt with the stunning quality of the landscape for the last few days that inevitably today will be a bit of an anticlimax. I suppose we also have mixed feelings about this being the last day. Great as it is to arrive and achieve the intended goal, one becomes very involved in the little self contained unit that is the tandem and us travelling through the landscape and part of you does not want to break the spell of being on a journey.
There has been a great deal of recent road building. Much of the road has been widened, with bends eased and gradients softened. We look at odd remnants of road buried in gullies and comment that although it is still very up and down, it would have been a much tougher pedal a few years ago. In a fairly short distance we clock up 1,000 miles from Lands End. Although there is nothing particularly impressive about this piece of road we stop and take a photo to mark the event.
We cycle on past the large headland that we can see extending out to sea ending in the finger of Strathy Point, then after passing the closed Strathy Inn we drop down to cross the Strathy River (“Is that the Strathy River flowing into Strathy Bay?”). By now the wind has freshened very considerably and when I sit up to freewheel I find that we are coming to a halt and have to keep pedalling downhill in order to make progress. From here we climb again and then after another dip and rise before Melvich the road turns on an inland detour around Melvich Bay in order to drop down to and cross Strath Halladale. Just beyond the river we also pass the junction with the A897. From this point there is a marked economic change with brown tourist signs appearing together with there being signs of more activity supporting visits to the beaches. We realise that so far as tourism goes there is in effect a circuit to John O’Groats comprising the A897, A836, A99 and A9. Because the B871 from the south to Bettyhill is a small and narrow road coaches do not use it. So poor and faded Bettyhill completely misses out on any day trip coach circuit taking in John O’Groats.
We cross our final county boundary, “Welcome to Caithness” and, of course, stop to record this milestone with a photo. The change in landscape with the boundary is dramatic. There is a line ruled across the landscape. We are now on a flat plain above sea level. There are fields that are green with walls or fences and cattle grazing in them. It is in fact dead boring. There is also absolutely nowhere to hide from the wind that is now blowing fiercely straight in our faces, so we decide to take a break for elevenses. This is rather nowhere territory so we stop at a bus shelter where we can prop the tandem while we chew on bananas and chewy bars before resuming our journey.
The road takes us through Reay and around Sandside Bay, which boasts golf links amongst its seaside attractions. From here in about a mile we reach Dounreay with its golf ball buildings and all the gubbins that go with nuclear reactors. So far as most of the U.K. population is concerned this really is an “out of sight out of mind” location. I note a roadside house with a B&B sign bearing the rather obvious but not visitor-grabbing name “Reactor View”. We contemplate visiting the nuclear reactor site for a coffee because they have a visitors welcome sign, but realise that we would have to cycle miles on the internal road system of the site and it would all take too long. So instead we grind our way on into the unrelenting wind. On the way I spot a length of polypropylene rope in the road and stop. I have some experience of bikes and ferries and thinking that a length of rope might be handy to secure the tandem when we are onboard we pick it up and stow it for possible later use.
We cross the Forss Water at the Bridge of Forss and plug on towards Thurso. At about lunchtime we drop down to Thurso Bay past a large new industrial site and hotel developments near to the A9 junction for the road to Scrabster and the ferry terminal. They don’t look very occupied. From there it is not far into the town itself. Once again we develop a slow puncture in the rear tyre, but we press on. Thurso is not a large town but it has shops and traffic lights and is the main centre for the whole of this end of northern Scotland. The CAB office entrance is tucked away behind the main street but we locate it without too much trouble.
Duncan, the manager, and his team warmly welcome us. Sheila goes in to talk about CAB matters and I stay in the yard to attend to the tandem. I find a sunny spot and two empty plastic fish boxes. These are ideal for my needs so I take the back wheel out of the tandem and prop it up on one, while I sit on the other in order to remove and patch the inner tube. One of the advisors kindly brings me out a mug of tea. Bike mechanic is not such a bad job. When everyone is ready and the bike is back together we assemble for the photo of tandem + banner and bodies outside the CAB door. We are given directions for somewhere to find lunch, but they must have got lost in the translation because we wander around the block without finding our intended café. On the way a woman stops me to ask if I can tell her where she can find the Citizens Advice Bureau. A hit! Instead of going into the usual routine of “I am sorry I do not come from here (other end of the island in fact)”, I am able to give her clear instructions with conviction. We abandon our lunch venue search and head along the high street. Sheila takes up a provisional place in a queue at a baker’s shop and café while I look for other options further on. Finding the le Bistro café I reserve a table and return to tell Sheila who buys some sandwiches for our later consumption then joins me in le Bistro. We decide to go native and order Skeet for lunch.
We leave Thurso to find that the wind is just as fierce and punishing, but toil on for five miles to Castletown, from where the road turns towards the north to follow the large sweep of Dunnet Bay. Eventually at Dunnet itself we have the choice of carrying on along the main road or detouring to take in Dunnet Head. Sheila is quite adamant that with a longish 80 miles day and a killing wind we can do without detours and should carry on. Dunnet Head is the most northerly point on mainland Britain and has always been on our intended route. I point out that it is up hill all the way to the end of the head but for the second part of the way the road is slightly west of north so we should get some wind assistance out and gravity will help us back. This is probably not a very scientifically sound argument, but more importantly we are not likely to be here again and having come all this way I am not in the mood to give up now.
We turn off towards Dunnet Head, but Sheila makes me pay for the decision by going on strike and not pedalling. Not only have I got to ride the weight of the tandem plus Sheila on the back, but with her feet clipped into the spd pedals it is like having a drag brake on. We circuit St John’s Loch on a road that is actually up and down, then turn left again at Brough for the main climb along the head. The scenery out here is moorland again and is quite attractive after the boredom of the flat Caithness mainland. The road zigzags in and out of the head wind and with little stoker assistance I concentrate as much on turning a low gear as on enjoying the view. With a final effort we are there at the lighthouse, 127 metres above the sea, which is at the foot of the cliffs in front of us. We pose for a photo with the tandem and lighthouse and then venture to the cliff edge, which is protected by a stretch of wall at this visitor spot, and peer down the impressive rock wall to the sea and spray below.
We retrace our way to Brough and from there head east on a loop of road that will return us to the A836. From the road junction I estimate that it is only about ten miles to John O’Groats, but if anything the wind, which has turned south-east is even fiercer and seems to be determined to rival the gale in which we departed from Lands End. From here it is simply a case of making ourselves as small as possible, sticking to a low gear and a slow speed and grinding our way through the wind to the finish. This is not cycling for fun it is just getting to the “End”. We eventually pass through Huna and ahead of us bright white in the sunshine we can see the John O’Groats hotel in the distance. Slowly we close the gap to the A99 road junction where we turn sharp left to head north. Sudden relief and calm, the wind is to our side and partly behind us. We sit up and the tandem is rolling along at last without effort. It is time to recover a smile and enjoy the last quarter of a mile.
We arrive at the John O’Groats complex and pedal directly to the finger-post sign before the departure of the official photographer who is in the process of closing up for the day. I dive into his booth to discuss what we want to be put on the sign. We try a few possibilities, but on a letter count they all require the finger-post extension to be fitted to the sign. This is the same set up as at Lands End. There they used the extension, which took all of 30 seconds to slot in and seemed to be no problem. At John O’Groats for some reason our photographer regards this as an impossible task, so after a bit of letter counting on fingers I opt for “CAB JOHN & SHEILA” on the top line, and “5TH MAY” on the second. As at Lands End the year 2000 is on the top of the sign. There is a plinth below the sign so it is tricky to prop up the tandem. But we climb onto the plinth, pose before the sign (inevitably with Sheila under the “John” and me under the “Sheila”) and I discreetly stand on one of the pedals to keep the bike upright. It is bright sunshine; the sea and the Island of Stroma are in the background. We smile and the official photos are taken.
In fact we have not yet officially arrived and have to ride on to the hotel where in the forecourt is painted a white line with the legend "Finish” painted along it facing us. We cycle the front wheel across and stop. I declare that I have finished and that Sheila will arrive shortly. Responding to a poke in the back I pedal on to the hotel door. We have done the “End to End”, but we have not yet reached “The End” because we still have to complete the “+ Orkney” section of today’s stage later this evening. In order to complete our rural route from End to End of the British mainland we have travelled 1,057 miles in a total cycling time of 84 hours and 33 minutes spread over 16 days including our initial short stage from Lands End to Penzance.
A family group of cyclists who have previously arrived on a trip raising sponsorship money for Leukaemia Research are loading their bikes onto their people carrier support vehicle and we chat to them before we enter the hotel. At the bar we order drinks and I indulge in a Mars Bar, while we look through the official book and some of the recent entries. We inscribe our names, home town and dates of the journey; and deciding that lengthy messages are not for us, under the “reason for doing it” column we put:
“For ourselves, and to publicise and raise money for the
Citizens Advice Bureaux network and for the Wessex Cancer Trust”.
From the hotel bar we adjourn to the nearby café for tea and cakes. We also check out the Ferry and purchase return tickets, including a £6 tandem fare, for the 6 p.m. sailing. Feeling fully refreshed, we leave the café in order to sort out our luggage and get ready for the Ferry. I also discover that the rear mudguard is about to collapse again so I take the opportunity to redo the job of taping it together, and then make sure that we have the tape with us in the bar bag. When we are ready we return to the hotel to use the facilities and clean up. While we are there two End to End cyclists arrive on solo bikes. They read and sign the book and we chat to them. They have come from direction of the Wick road and so have been spared the force of the east wind today. We agree to take their photos for them and so we all adjourn together with their bikes to the finger-post sign where they don their sponsorship tee-shirts and pose for the camera. We then gather up our baggage and the tandem, which we wheel onto the jetty, take a photo and settle down to wait. At 6 p.m. we can see the ferry stationary out to sea, but there is no water at the foot of the jetty and so no prospect of it docking. We discover from a knowledgeable waiting passenger that there is a particularly low tide because of the very high pressure. We know all about high pressure. We have been experiencing the strong north-easterly winds that it has created for the last four days. Clearly the Ferry sailing is going to be well behind schedule.
John O'Groats to Kirkwall
To Lands End
Prologue - Lands End to Ludgvan
Day 2 Ludgvan to Trelill
Day 3 Trelill to Great Torrington
Day 4 Great Torrington to Bridgwater
Day 5 Bridgwater to Chepstow
Day 6 Chepstow to Ludlow
Day 7 Ludlow to Church Minshull
Day 8 Church Minshull to Slaidburn
Day 9 Slaidburn to Penrith
Day 10 Penrith to Eskdalemuir
Day 11 Eskdalemuir to South Queensferry
Day 12 South Queensferry to Blairgowrie
Day 13 Blairgowrie to Tomintoul
Day 14 Tomitoul to Alness
Day 15 Alness to Bettyhill
Day 16A Bettyhill to John O'Groats
Day 16B John O'Groats to Kirkwall
Orkney and Home