Saturday, 25 June 2011

Day Eleven: The final day - Dornoch to John O'Groats...

It seems incredible that our trip is almost over; the past ten days have really been a blur of riding, eating and sleeping; of happiness and frustration, of determination and realisation. One thing is for sure though we will all remember this for a long time.

I was up early this morning, wakened by a golden daybreak. I wanted to walk on the beach and just savour every moment of this, our last day. I took some photographs and collected some pebbles and a piece of driftwood. The sea was an incredible painted blue, the sky clear and diamond bright, another dazzlingly beautiful day was ahead of us.

We set off on the A9 at a steady pace, each road sign counting down the miles to our final destination. It is just so beguiling around here, and the sudden sight of the sea on a summer day such as this, can only be likened to a vision of the promised land. It is the most beautiful sea. The water gently undulating, kingfisher blue, intense and bright. The strands of light hitting the surface glow like a neon net laid out to catch our dreams. It is calm, the wind is flat and gently kisses us as we rise, it is all I can do to remind myself to keep my eyes on the road.

Water is the earths most skilful engineer; water and the tidal moon are our keenest architects. And the coast on this final stretch of our journey is sculpted and smoothed into an ergonomic, rhythmically satisfying aesthetic. Every shell, fin, stone and scale; driftwood and all the flotsam of man's manufacture is eventually whittled down and worn into this coastal beauty.

This singular road is all there is between us and John O'Groats a few more miles is all we have left to complete our mission - that thought keeps bouncing back to me as we climb more hills and negotiate steep, fast descents.

Breakfast beckons and we know that finding the van will be easy today - there will be nowhere to hide - we are hoping for a spot with a view, it would difficult to find anything else around here. Onwards through Dunrobin, Brora, Lothbeg and Portgower and then suddenly, quite unexpectedly and without warning, there's a huge hill in front of us. It has caught us unexpected, we have been lulled into a false sense of over confidence - surely we had seen the worst, suffered the most, this last bit will be easy?... No.

The road up from Helmsdale
Helmsdale sounds like it should be in Yorkshire or the Peak District, it sounds pretty and gentle, a place to stop off and enjoy a cream tea with your Mum. Not this Helmsdale; this is an evil place set out like a trap to snare unfortunate cyclists who think they're done with the End to End.

Hard climbs!
The road climbs into the distance and snakes around corners, increasingly steep and foreboding. It's like an alpine stage of the Tour de France, it makes us sweat as we jerk and haul ourselves wearily upwards. The burn in the legs has returned now, and the mouth is dry. My heart beats like a voodoo drum, this must be what it feels like to drown, to suffocate, its impossible to suck in enough air! Then at the side of the road overlooking the sea is the campervan - the girls are there taking photo's - I'm grateful. It means a stop, a rest, the chance to recover.

What a spot. We sit on the barrier overlooking the sea. The view is magnificent, the sea is fickle, ethereal, moody and restless as it ebbs and flows, hissing and slapping at the rocks, then whispering and alternatively booming. It's colour changes from a cool gunmetal blue to bright silver, shining like oil on steel. All this from the roadside as we sit and enjoy tea and sandwiches of egg and cheese. Soon we were off again, rejoining the struggle to the top of the hill - now made even tougher by the feeling of fullness after lunch. We pass through Dunbeath and Latheronwheel (what a great name! - Sweatonwheel would have been even better) and then on to Bruan, Whaligoe and Ulbster - We had been in the sun so long our legs were the colour of a masochists bum, and then we were at Wick. We saw the train to our right, a rather pitiful two carriages, including the engine - and passed the big Tesco store. Not far now.
Our lunchbreak stop

We were on the final dozen or so miles now, we passed a cottage with a banner saying 'Happy 18th Birthday Suzie' I got to wondering what young people do up here, where do they go, what is there for them? - come to think of it, what is there for old people?  It is a desolate landscape, bereft of any meaningful features, the land looks wild and in the main uncultivated, with grassy tufts and dark heathery patches. We passed a field with two palomino ponies and seaweed hung drying on a wire fence. And then we were there. First there was a hotel, it needed a lick of paint. We took a few photo's and carried on. We had the idea of riding into the centre of town and performing some sort of victory salute - like crossing the finishing line of a Tour stage - arms stretching up to the sky... after a couple of practice attempts we decided this might result in an unfortunate trip to A&E, so we practiced riding with one hand whilst holding each others hand with one arm aloft - this seemed feasible.

John O'Groats takes it name from 'Jan de Groot' a Dutchman who obtained a grant for the ferry from the Scottish mainland to Orkney in 1496. In 2005 'Lonely Planet' described it as 'a seedy tourist trap' whilst in 2010 it received an award as 'Scotland's most dismal town' I don't think we'd argue with that - as a destination it was disappointing, but for us this was more about the journey.

In the centre we performed our 'victory salute' and dismounted close to the fingerpost. The town seemed quiet, not many people around, most of the little shops and cafes appeared to be closed. The John O'Groats House Hotel, which stands on the site of Jan de Groot's house, has been described as one of the UK's most famous landmarks. It is closed and in total disrepair - it seems a shame.

Made it!! - John o'Groats
We organised a photo at the signpost and then managed to find somewhere for a coffee - we had a bottle of champagne which had travelled with us in the van - we cracked it open and sipped at the fizzy elixir from paper cups.

Then we saw two other riders arrive; it was Graham and Ola who we had met way back in the Lake District. They had travelled a totally different route and arrived here from the North via Thurso. It was good to see them again.

So that was it really. We finished our coffees, polished off the Champers, put our bikes in the van and we were off. We needed to start the drive back and find a campsite. Some quick research located a site back at Dunbeath and so we headed there. The site was adequate but the shower block was fantastic, divided into 'rooms' each containing a shower, a seperate WC and hand basin. The lady who owned the site recommended the restaurant just across the road for an evening meal - 'It doesnay look much, but it's wonderful inside' she said. We decided to give it a try. She was right. From the outside this looked like the worst transport cafe you've ever seen - I can't imagine it attracting much passing trade. But inside was different; the menu sounded tempting, the staff were friendly and helpful and the restaurant area had a most magnificent panoramic window overlooking the sea. Gary and I, having spent eleven days on our bikes had a rare thirst. We drank like fire engines taking on supplies. We had done it. Lands End to John O'Groats - 956 miles in total. We still couldn't quite believe it.

After a wonderful meal and a pudding the girls wanted to get back to the camp site. Gary and I decided a 'wee dram' would be in order, in way of celebration. We got chatting to the owner who was something of a Malt Whisky aficionado. He had 109 bottles, all different, on display and had a tale to tell about everyone of them. He was a man whose face displayed the pallor of a life lived on the edge of a bar stool, who was happy with his lot. He seemed a little impatient and certainly he had an opinion on everything. We brought a couple of Malts and offered to buy one for him too. This offer seemed to lighten the atmosphere; he joined us and then quickly reciprocated by recommending another, a local offering, we gladly received. Then our turn again... and so it went on.

Sampling the Malts!!
Half an hour later we needed to sit down. Then we found we were sitting down already. It transpired that the bar owners Grandfather had owned a distillery in Dumbarton - and, (it gets a bit spooky here), his father owned a pub at Old Kilpatrick (where we'd met on day 8) It was in the 60's and his father renamed the pub 'The Telstar' (after the Joe Meek record - remember day 3, Newent), also his father's ashes had been scattered underneath the Rowan Tree, growing out of the rock at Glen Coe (See day 9) - these coincidences seemed amazing - we sampled another couple of malts to think it over. In the end we decided we were in some sort of 70's hammer horror film, and if we didn't get out soon, someone would come and kidnap us and we would end up in a whicker man and they would set fire to us.
But just before that, one last malt. This one was a special one he said. £200 a bottle, 100% proof - I don't remember the name but I do remember the taste - it was the Vindaloo of malt whiskies, it took the enamel off my teeth and melted my throat. It was great. We wobbled back to the site in a haze of whisky fumes. Thankfully there were no naked flames. It seemed a fitting end to the journey.

Dornoch to John O'Groats - 79.2 miles
Max Speed: 42.1mph
Time on bike: 5hrs 53 min
Ascent: 4219ft
Calories used: 3881

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