Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Final Fifty! Bettyhill to John o' Groats

Thursday 27 June, 2013
The Bonnie Prince betrayed – just like Cornwall – isolated? The Falklands really are isolated – Thurso – is this it?

The Bonnie Prince betrayed

Last night we stayed twelve miles west of Bettyhill in the small village of Tongue overlooking the Kyle of Tongue. We dined in the Tongue Hotel above the Kyle and talked about its most famous link to Scottish history: in 1746 a French ship bringing money and possibly weapons in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie was chased by an English naval frigate into the Kyle's shallow waters and went aground. After a furious exchange of cannon fire, the crew and treasure escaped, but were soon betrayed by locals loyal to the Hanover cause and not to the Prince who was defeated weeks later at Culloden.

Braemar House, another of David's truly inspired choices, sits high on the moors above Tongue with a broad vista of the rearing ridges of Ben Loyal, rolling greenery and the deep indent of the Kyle. We voted it “Best Panorama “ of the trip, this wild landscape of lonely, brooding mountains rolling down to high cliffs staring out over the curve of the horizon towards the Arctic.

The view to Ben Loyal from the moors above Tongue. To the right, out of sight, is the long inlet of the Kyle of Tongue.

Just like Cornwall

Our last day: 50 miles to JOG and the end of the ride. Of course it would be good to complete what we had started 24 days ago but I was not panting with desperation to get there. I have relished each day of this adventure and knew I would be sad when it was over. So let's get on the road, but let's enjoy every moment of this final day.

Today we are on the final stage of the long trip which began 24 days ago at Lands End.

Today the ride is 50 miles along the cliffs of the northern coast, with “ six tough climbs in 17 miles” before “ things settle down” according to our guide.

A profile of the coast of Cornwall would look a little like this one. No high hills but lots of short, steep inclines.

If this sounds familiar, it certainly is. There is symmetry between the landscapes at the start and finish of LEJOG. When I looked towards JOG from Bettyhill this morning after David had taken me back over the hills, I could have been looking north from Newquay along the coast of Cornwall. Another point of symmetry: the same Penzance-based business owns the start and finish signposts of LEJOG.

David on the cliffs at Bettyhill.. The cliffs persist almost as far as John o' Groats, 50 miles to the east.

Isolated? The Falklands really are isolated

Cool, fine, little wind and after 24 days the legs were tougher, the climbs less intimidating. At the top of the first, and biggest hill, I met an Australian couple on a leisurely tour of Scotland. I recommended Tongue and the Highlands round Lairg, mentioning how much I enjoyed their atmosphere of desolate isolation.

We know what you mean.” they replied, “but there are lonelier places: our daughter, an agronomist on assignment in the Falkland Islands, says that when she is away from Port Stanley, the town, she feels like she is a million miles from anywhere.”


Mark joined me at the top of the final hill before Thurso. He had left early that morning from Altnaharra on the final stage of a 14 day LEJOG, solo, but with plenty of encounters on the road. As always when a racy rider slowed to chat, I was a little embarrassed that he had to slow down, but, as always, I appreciated his company and kindness in wanting to talk. He had fought against the winds most of the way and had found Cornwall and Devon, when the legs are still hardening up, to be the most strenuous riding.

Thurso is the most northerly town on the British mainland, right on the coast, surprisingly (to me) large, with hotels and many shops.

Thurso the most northerly town on the British mainland,  1930s (?). The town retains
 the charm of these old stone buildings and  wide streets and also offers good hotels, shops and eating places.

I had stopped at a crossroads in town, puzzling over my next turning. Navigation suddenly became an issue after days of being no problem at all. I had definitely got out of practice.

Excuse me, which is the main road to John o' Groats? I can't see any sign.” I asked an older couple. With every reason to roll their eyes and say “ Hoots Mon”, they were instead very gracious and smiled only a little, turning my attention to a movie-screen-sized billboard with “JOHN O'GROATS” and a huge arrow just back down the street.

I thanked them and talked about my plans to visit, after the ride, the Orkney Islands now excitingly visible just off the coast. Since infancy I had heard stories of my ancestors who had come from the Orkneys, settled in Invercargill, New Zealand and started a whole Brass dynasty there.

Panorama from the Thurso shore. To the right, Dunnett Head, the most northerly point of mainland Britain. Faintly on the horizon, the Orkney Islands.

Is this it?

The twenty miles from Thurso are only moderatly undulating but I felt each one of these miles. Sore backside, neck, back and wrists, the discomfort increased by each thump and crunch on the patchy, uneven, pot-holed surface. But it was more than that. Here's my cunning theory: my feeble subconscious knew that my body could have a rest after today and was allowing fatigue, suppressed until now, to make itself felt.

The couple in Thurso had recommended several places along my route – Dunnett Head, Castle Mey, but I rode on without diversion. Next time!

At the top of the last hill before JOG, I stopped to gaze across the bay and the little town towards the rise which was John o' Groats.

Nearly there! John o' Groats is beyond the little town of  Huna on the far side of the bay. 

I swept down the hill, through the town and was feted by shouts of “Well done”, applause, bows. It was David, pretending to be a huge crowd. Very nice of him, actually, probably making up for driving past me a few minutes earlier and shouting out the window, widely grinning: “ bloody cyclists, shouldn't be allowed on the road!!”

Just turn left at the hotel at the top of the road” were his final instructions. I turned left, tottered down the hill into a car-park. I was finished. John o'Groats? I was, very sorry to say, underwhelmed. Now I understand better why Lonely Planet calls it “ a seedy tourist trap” and why in 2010 JOG was given the Carbuncle Award because it is “Scotland's Most Dismal Town.”

Imagine, then what the place was like in 1496 when Jan de Groote arrived from Holland to establish a ferry across the 6 miles to the Orkney Islands. The fare was 4 pence. Gone up a bit since then. We paid 61 pounds each for the return trip.

The best - dressed Scotsmen we met all trip. Oh, they weren't actually Scots, they were Dutch, members of a whisky-tasting club from Amsterdam: we met them on the jetty at John o ' Groats. They were no relation to Jan de Groote.

We were sitting outside a cafe when a young woman on an upright old-fashioned bicycle with a basket on the handlebars rode in. Sandra had ridden from Altnaharra today , the final day of a 16 day LEJOG. Her joy in finishing was a delight, a perfect reminder of why John 0'Groats is a special name, a memory permanent and positive for so many who have come the distance.

We had ridden 1670 kms ( 1050 miles) from Lands End, and had come 12,850 miles (20, 680 kms) from New Zealand to do this trip. It was worth every mile (kilometre)

I wasn't quite finished. After a coffee and photos – we didn't use the signpost, it costs 7 pounds 50 – I rode pannier-less up to the Seaview Hotel to bolt back on all the weighty items I had removed from my bike, attached a big notice and put it in the hotel shed for shipping back to Lands End Cycle Hire in Penzance. Thank you, faithful steed.

I looked down the main road. Wick is only15 miles away. And it's south. That's downhill isn't it?

I know I haven't done with cycling in this part of the world.

I will be back!

David in front of the JOG Fish and Chip shop. we were too mean to pay the seven pounds fifty to get an official photo taken. The Orkney Islands are barely visible to the left of David's head.

Distance Today Average Speed Max Speed Riding Time Trip Odometer
80.66 16 58.3 5h 1m 1660.7

A happy rider outside the gallery at John o' Groats on the afternoon of 27 June, 2013.

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