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I’m Off Again

(Well, maybe just a little).

In April, I’m going to Spain to hike the 500 mile Camino de Santiago.  This will be followed by a three-week Rick Steve’s “Europe Through the Back Door” tour and ending with a 200 mile
Coast-to-Coast Walk across England.  You can follow my journey at www.trailjournals.com/jackfrost .

Buen Camino/Cheers,

Jack

Lessons Learned

Well, I’ve been back now for just over four weeks and I figure that I’d better get started on this so that I’ll have something to talk about at my next Procrastinators Anonymous meeting, if they don’t postpone it again 😉  Here is what I learned:

Research

More and more information about walking from Land’s End to John O’Groats is becoming available all the time, both in print and on the internet.  I recommend starting with Mark Maxon’s website.  He provides resource information, a collection of tips, and links to other walker’s journeys and experiences.  I thought it was also a good idea to know something about the history of Britain, so I purchased the DVD collection of Simon Schama: A History of Britain (Special Edition); the BBC edition, not the A&E version.

Time of Year

Walking mid-May to mid-August meant running into summer holiday travelers and some difficulty finding accommodations on the weekends towards the end.  If I had it to do again, I would start about 2 to 4 weeks earlier.

Route

Not being familiar with Great Britain and being pressed for time, I selected the route laid-out in Andy Robinson’s book, “The End to End Trail” using the alternative three-month schedule with its shorter days.  Although I sometimes gave Andy a rough time in my blog, I have to admit that it was a pretty good route.  He does a good job of avoiding the pointless ups & downs (PUDS), such as in the southern Pennines, but occasionally makes long scenic diversions that add needless miles, such as the Cheddar Gorge.  I particularly enjoyed walking on the national trails and the established long distance paths.

The problems arose when it came time to set-off on footpaths across country and through fields.  Occasionally the illustrations and descriptions in the book just didn’t match what I was seeing in the field, or the path had been re-routed, or it had become overgrown and impassable.  My recommendation would be to follow Andy’s basic corridor, but find alternatives to much of the field-walking and hedge-hopping by using minor roads and other long distance paths.

The A9 is a necessary evil if you choose not to follow Andy’s route into the Northern Highlands and take the eastern coastal route instead.  Steve Clifford has done a good job of finding minor roads wherever possible and I found an alternative route between “The Mound,” south of Golspie, and Helmsdale (see Day 71 Wayfinding Notes).

Where’s The Path was an invaluable online tool in laying-out my GPS tracks and I strongly recommend it.  It is available through the grace of generous donations, so don’t be afraid to toss a few bucks or quid their way.  You can download either my day’s tracks or Steve’s tracks from EveryTrail via our blog sites.

The Ordnance Survey Maps were also a great resource, albeit a bit pricey.  I never rely on the guidebooks alone; I always take maps too.

Gear

My pack finally weighed-in at 24 lbs (11 kg) before food and water.  I had one set of walking clothes, one set of town clothes, an old tee shirt and swim suit to sleep in, and a pair of Crocs so that I wouldn’t have to wear my wet and smelly hiking shoes around town.  I used the computer and GPS every day and every other piece of gear at least once, with the exception of the toilet paper and the Light Load towels.  I ended-up sending back the following:

  • Pocket Survival Pack:  plenty of civilization everywhere
  • Water Treatment, Aquamira:  plenty of potable water sources
  • Reading Book:  no time
  • Wet Wipes:  not needed

The Osprey was the most comfortable backpack I’ve ever worn, but I did have trouble with wear on webbing on the frame.  My Moab Ventilators were OK until it started getting wet.  The soles remained intact, but the sides started to split-out and the inside lining at the heel wore through.  I was plagued by blisters from Loch Lomond on.  My iPhone cum iPod came-in handy for listening to audio books and music on those long stretches of disused railway, forest road, and canal path (never on roads though).

B&B vs. Camping

I do not regret my decision to travel light and stay in B&Bs and hotels.  If I had it to do again, I would try to use more youth hostels just for the companionship.  The biggest headache was finding accommodations and making reservations.  I strongly recommend paying a booking service like Easyways to do make as many reservations for you as possible.  The trip was much nicer when I didn’t have to spend all my rest day time on the computer trying to find a room up the line.  I do not recommend using the “kit transfer” service; pack light, carry it yourself and save the money.

Budget

My total cost for this expedition was $13,313.25.  That includes airfare, meals, lodging, maps, clothing, bank charges and miscellaneous; but does not include the sightseeing at the end.  The average daily cost for 82 days on the trail was $125 or £78

I had originally hoped to keep my budget at around £50 per day for food and lodging, but the cost of everything has gone-up since 2010.  I settled on range of £35-50 for lodging tried to keep food at around £15-18 per day.

Re-supply

In order to keep my pack weight down, I used a bounce box that I mailed ahead of my route which contained my maps and guidebooks as well as travel sized toiletries and daily medications.  I’d mail home the old maps, keep what I needed for the upcoming section, and send the rest on.  To keep the volume down, my brother sent a second box from the States toHebdenBridge near the half-way point.  It worked fine except for the time that I sent the box to aPO in the wrong village, 12 miles away.

Everything else I was able to get from local shops with the exception of mole skin.  The Boots Pharmacy chain only carried the thick foam pads that don’t work as well and I had to make do with the Compeed blister plasters.

Blogging

I’m glad that I decided to publish an online journal for this trip.  It was great to share the adventure with others and “meet” fellow long distance hikers.  Even though it took a lot of time each night writing down and posting my thoughts to the blog site, along with GPS tracks and pictures, I now have a detailed account of my adventure which I can read in years to come.

I hope you enjoyed following my adventure as much as I enjoyed presenting it to you.

“Cheers,”

Jack Frost

Epilogue

Friday August 12, 2011 Yuma, Arizona, USA
Home Weather:  Sunny, Temp 107°F (42°C)

After checking out of the Seaview Hotel at 10:30 on Sunday, August 7th, I took a taxi from John O’Groats to the airport at Wick.  My flight didn’t leave until 16:15 and the airport was closed, so I went to Tesco to kill some time.  I bought two cans of Haggis, because I know my family is going to want to know what it tastes like.  I also bought an el-cheapo day pack to use as a carry-on to replace the one that I ditched in Penzance.  After which I went to the café for some lunch and reflected on my 82 day, 1.218 mile adventure to that point.  I’ll go more into my thoughts on that subject in my next blog entry; my “After Action Report.”

The airport opened at 15:00 and I sat waiting for the plane, talking to two cyclists who had arrived at the JOG signpost just after I did.  We shared our experiences, comparing and contrasting our journeys.  I may be prejudiced, but I think walking was more fun than cycling would have been.  I flew from Wick to Edinburgh and then on to London.  As we approached Heathrow, I got some excellent pictures of the city center.  Off to the north smoke could be seen rising from one of the boroughs of London.

On the day I reached JOG, 200 people marched on a police station in a northern borough of London to protest the shooting of an unarmed man by police the day before. Britain has long believed in “policing by consent,” a concept that essentially means the police can only operate with the support of their public.  They are under a duty to facilitate peaceful protest and feel that the strength of the British policing model, from the founding days of Robert Peel onwards, has always been promoted as its reliance on minimal force, drawing strength and support from those who are being policed.  As a result, few police were on hand when the protest turned violent and the mob began looting and burning. It took the police over 90 minutes to arrive with a weak response, which emboldened youth gangs on subsequent nights — first in London and then in other cities — to feel free to go on rampages thinking the police couldn’t stop them.  I was well away from what was seen on TV and life in central Londonwent-on pretty much as usual.

Anyway, on Monday I took a day tour of the major sights of London.  On Tuesday I visited the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221B Baker Street, saw the changing of the guard, toured Buckingham Palace, and went to see Phantom of the Opera.  Wednesday I walked around the south bank, visiting some lesser known sights and transferred to the Gatwick Holiday Inn.  Thursday I got to the airport at 06:30 and 22 hours later I was home.  My three month adventure in Great Britain had come to an end.

Day 75 – The End

Day 75 – Saturday August 6, 2011 Watten to John O’Groats
Seaview Hotel Weather:  Pt Cloudy
Today’s Distance:  17.9 mi Total Distance:  1218.0 mi
Departed:  08:29  Arrived:  14:34 Elevation Gain:  809 ft
GPS Track:  Day 75  

I MADE IT!

I was off on my final day before 8:30, determined to enjoy the last 18 miles or so miles of my walk.  The day started-out sunny as I passed Loch Watten, which is supposed to be a popular trout fishing spot, but there wasn’t a sole on the lake.

I walked a series of B roads and minor roads and soon found myself at the Aberdeen and Northern Livestock Market.  The gentleman I talked to said that Monday is the start of the market for lambs and he expects them to fetch around £80 (per kilo?).  I’ve really noticed how the lambs have grown in the past 11 weeks.  He said there’s actually a shortage of lambs these days and they have to import them to meet demand.  You couldn’t prove it by me.  I can’t count the number of sheep I saw on this trip (or the number of times I stepped in sheep $#!+).  As I passed-by fields of sheep I told them to run and hide, but they just stood there.  Stupid Sheep!

I continued to walk through the “Great Plains of Scotland” and reflected on all the different sights I’ve seen on this trip and all the experiences I’ve had.  As I passed one particular pasture, all the cows came down to the wall to say goodbye to me.  Eventually I crested a hill and in front of me was the coast again. It was quite a sight and I could clearly see the Orkney Islands, which dominated the horizon, and in front the island of Stroma

In the past Stroma had a population of about 550, which by 1901 had reduced to around 375. The population continued to decline through the 20th century, and the last two families left around 1962.  Now it is owned by aCaithnessfarmer who uses it to graze sheep.  The number of ruined houses shows how well populated the island was at one time. In the centre of the island is a church with a bell tower. Next to the church is the manse which is kept habitable for use by visiting shepherds, particularly at lambing time. There is also a walled graveyard with mausoleum, which is the tomb of the Kennedy family who owned the island in the 17th century. Stroma is now a conservation area with an area fenced off to protect the rare plants from the sheep.

I continued to follow Steve’s route until I came to the junction with the A836, which I followed along the coast until I hit the A99, at the end of which lies the community of John O’GroatsThe town takes its name from Jan de Groot, a Dutchman who obtained a grant for the ferry from the Scottish mainland to Orkney, recently acquired from Norway, from King James IV in 1496.  It is regarded as the most northerly settlement of mainland Great Britain.  The actual most northerly point is nearby Dunnet Head.  My objective was the signpost near the harbor that looks remarkably similar to the one inLand’s End.  There were quite a few cyclists, bikers, and tourists milling around.  I paid my £10.95 for the official photo (and a quick snapshot with my camera), went to the nearby café to sign the register, and it was over; 82 days and 1,218 miles later.

Tomorrow I take a taxi to Wick and fly to London  for a few days while I tour around the city, then fly home on the 11th.  Watch for an “After Action Report” a few days after I get home.

“Cheers”

Jack

Day 74

Day 74 – Friday August 5, 2011 Dunbeath to Watten
Brown Trout Hotel Weather:  Mostly Sunny & Windy
Today’s Distance:  20.6 mi Total Distance:  1200.1  mi
Departed:  08:23  Arrived:  15:36 Elevation Gain:  1348 ft
GPS Track:  Day 74  

It rained last night and when I left this morning it was cloudy, and the wind had blown the fog away and I could see the North Seaagain.  I continued up the A9 and then on its cousin, the A99 for about 6.5 miles.  Traffic wasn’t as bad as yesterday.  Just after Lybster I turned left on a minor road and continued almost due north until I reached Watten.

The first several miles were straight as an arrow as I passed through farm and pasture lands with some shabby looking farmsteads.  This soon gave way to forests and moorland, in the middle of which lay the Grey Cairns of Camster, two chambered burialcairns of Neolithic date. One is long, with two chambers and projecting ‘horns’ and the other is round, and contains a single chamber.  I took some photos but didn’t go inside because the passage floor was wet.  After lunch the clouds lifted and the sun began to shine through.  The wind also picked-up and I had to fight a head wind the whole way.  The trees gave way to moorlands and I felt as though I was on aKansas prairie, it was so flat.  I finally got my first glimpse of Watten and the nearby loch about five miles away.  It seemed to take FOREVER to get here. 

Watten is a small village near Loch Watten, the largest body of water inCaithness and is famous for its brown trout fishing. A military camp was built in Watten during World War II, in early 1943, and at the end of the war this became a POW Camp. This was described as “Britain’s most secretive prisoner of war camp” because many prominent Nazis were moved here.

Tomorrow is John O’Groats!  With luck the weather will hold and I’ll have an easy 19 miles.

Day 73

Day 73 – Thursday August 4, 2011 Helmsdale to Dunbeath
Tormore Farm B&B Weather:  Cloudy w/ Fog
Today’s Distance:  15.5 mi Total Distance:  1179.5  mi
Departed:  09:18  Arrived:  14:55 Elevation Gain:  1569 ft
GPS Track:  Day 73  

Well there was no way around it.  I had to bite the bullet and get back on the A9 today for the whole way to Dunbeath.  As I climbed out of Helmsdale I couldn’t figure out why my GPS showed Steve’s track from last year to be so far to the east of the A9.  When I re-read his blog tonight, I realized why.  The Ministry of Narrow Winding Roads built a new bypass that cut the corner near Navidale so that End-to-Enders wouldn’t have so far to walk.  Now if they’d only put a sidewalk next to the A9 from Tain to John O’Groats, we’d be in business.

Speaking of End-to-Enders:  I met my first LEJOGer today near that cutoff.  He was a young guy named Ritchie and he had started at Land’s End around the first of June.   He had been walking since 06:00 this morning and was sitting down taking a break.  We talked for a while and I shared my map with him and then I started walking again, thinking he’d pass me in no time.  He never did.  I’d see him behind me and then I wouldn’t.  He’s checking-out some of the old castles and “Brochs” (Iron Age drystone hollow-walled structure) along the way.  He hopes to be in John O’ Groats on Saturday like I do. 

The fog was rather thick in places and I didn’t see the North Seaagain until I reached the little hamlet of Berriedale, and then not again until Dunbeath.  The traffic along this section of the A9 wasn’t as bad as it was two days ago and there were a few good climbs, including the one out of Berriedale.  Then at about 13:00, somebody must have announced a “blue light special” at the local Tesco store because traffic really picked-up.  I always road walk, facing oncoming traffic, on the asphalt until a vehicle approaches and then I step up onto the grassy “verge” (shoulder) where it’s harder walking.  For the next two hours I’d walk 20 paces, step onto the verge; walk 20 paces, step onto the verge; until I reached Dunbeath.

Dunbeath Dunbeath has a very rich archaeological landscape, the site of numerous Iron Age Brochs and an early medieval monastic site. The village was built to cash in on the herring boom in the early 1800s, with up to 100 boats operating from the harbor here.  The harbor is much less active now, though it does provide an excellent viewpoint for Dunbeath Castle, perched precariously on the cliffs south of the village.

Day 72

Day 72 – Wednesday August 3, 2011 Brora to Helmsdale
Kindale Guest House Weather:  Cloudy w/ Fog
Today’s Distance:  12.5 mi Total Distance:  1164.0  mi
Departed:  09:37  Arrived:  14:27 Elevation Gain:  410 ft
GPS Track:  Day 72  

I was determined not to walk the A9 anymore than I had to today.  I walked to the Brora golf course and down onto the beach.  Low tide was at 07:51 and high tide in Helmsdale would be at 14:10.  I had to cross a few streams and occasionally do some rock hopping, but overall it was a very pleasant walk.  The North Sea was flat as a pancake and I virtually had the whole beach to myself, except for the gulls and some groups of sea lions who would rush into the water as I got near to them.

Near Lothbeg Point I headed up into the dunes and followed a road around the point and through a caravan (travel trailer) camping area.  Some of the caravans looked like they had been there all summer, with little patios and even lawn mowers to keep the grass trimmed.  Eventually the road ran out and I ended-up back on the beach again.  Above me were a series of old coastal lookout bunkers presumably used during the war.  Sometime after Kilmote the sandy beach turned into a rocky one and I was forced up along the railway fence and onto some rough path.  The path eventually ran next to a rock wall and improved greatly. 

Wayfinding Note:  After the little cottages at Portgower are passed, the path becomes almost non-existent but the rocky beach continues all the way to Helmsdale harbor as far as I could tell.  Frankly, it was more trouble sticking to the coast than it was worth.  I recommend leaving the coast at Portgower where there is an official railway crossing and continuing along the A9, which runs next to the tracks.  You reach a sidewalk in about one mile.

Only three days and 56 miles left to John O’Groats!  I will be there on Saturday afternoon.

Day 71 Wayfinding

Continued from previous entry.

Wayfinding Note 1:  After crossing The Mound, turn right onto an old asphalt road with a bar across it opposite the car park.  The road doubles-back into trees parallel to the A9.  Take the first left and follow the remains of a old dirt road across a clear-cut area into the forest; the path ahead is obvious.  When the forest path turns right, continue straight and down to the field visible ahead.  Let your conscience be your guide here and turn right, following the edge of the field down to a drainage ditch continuing along this line to an active railway.    

Cross the railway where you can and find a stone culvert beneath an old raised roadbed running at a right angle, south away from the railway.  Follow this overgrown raised roadbed into Balblair Wood and turn right onto a two-track forest road, which is now a waymarked bridleway.  Continue along this road, ignoring all side trails, until you reach an asphalt road.  Turn left and continue along this minor road and into Golspie.

Wayfinding Note 2:  About four miles out of Golspie, the seacoast path begins to climb up behind the dunes and is eventually lost near a waterfall.  Before this happens, make your way to the beach and continue the last two miles to Brora.  A wooden fence leads to a dirt road, which is followed through a gate.  Turn left onto a residential street and join the A9.

Day 71

Day 71 – Tuesday August 2, 2011 Dornoch to Brora
Pandor’s B&B Weather:  Cloudy w/ PM Lt Rain
Today’s Distance:  19.0 mi Total Distance:  1151.5  mi
Departed:  09:20  Arrived:  17:24 Elevation Gain:   934 ft
GPS Track:  Day 71  

This was a very interesting day.  I got a late start this morning after buying a thank you card for Jan and dropping it off at last night’s restaurant.  I left by way of a minor road heading north.  Instead of cutting over to the disused railroad bed as Steve did last year, I continued along this road until I came to Loch Fleet and turned northwest to follow the edge of the loch to the A9.  Along the way I passed beneath the ruins of Skelbo Castle, a 14th century fortified tower belonging to the powerful Clan Sutherland.  It was low tide and a large group of sea lions could be seen on the sand bar.  After about two hours of walking in the relative quite of minor roads, I rejoined the busy A9, crossed the bridge over the River Fleet, and began looking for a route into Golspie, away from the A9, that was described in a comment to Steve’s blog last year (see Wayfinding Note 1 on next entry).

After lunch, I located the seacoast path from Golspie to Brora and set off along a grassy track, which was a nice change from all the road walking I’ve been doing lately.  After about two miles I passed beneath Dunrobin Castle, which has been the stately home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland since the 13th century.  The Castle resembles a French chateâu with its towering conical spires and is one of Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited houses.  It was used as a naval hospital during the First World War and as a boys’ boarding school from 1965 to 1972.  It is now available for tours, weddings, and corporate functions.

I continued along a good path until it ran out and beach walked the rest of the way to Brora (see Wayfinding Note 2 on next entry).  As I came around a dune I saw a bunch of people in yellow hard hats digging in the sand around some stone walls.  I had stumbled upon an archeological dig at the site of an early 17th century salt works.  Jackie Aitken gave a tour of the site and explained that Lady Jane Gordon, Countess of Sutherland initiated the early coal and salt industries at Brora in 1598. Brora became involved with the making of salt due to the geological fortitude of coal being found on the beach.  In 1614 salt pans were erected which filled with sea water and were fired with the locally won coal to evaporate, leaving a residue of salt. The salt would have been used locally to preserve meat and cure salmon in home consumption.  The venture was short lived and closed a few years later.

Tomorrow I have a relatively short walk to Helmsdale and I’m going to try to beach walk my way there in order to avoid the A9.

Day 70

Day 70 – Monday August 1, 2011 Alness to Dornoch
Cairnhill B&B Weather:  Cloudy w/ Occ Lt Rain
Today’s Distance:  21.1 mi Total Distance:  1132.5  mi
Departed:  07:53  Arrived:  15:44 Elevation Gain:  778 ft
GPS Track:  Day 70  

Steve’s route took me along the main street of Alness and through a residential area on streets with sidewalks to rejoin National Cycle Network Route #1 on what I called “the never-ending road to Tain.”  It was only ten miles, but it never turned a corner, never saw a proper town, and it just kept going, and going, and going.  At first there were some nice views of the Firth, but before long that disappeared I tramped through farmland then woodlands.  Just after noon I entered the town center of Tain, went into the first café I could find, and relaxed with a Coke and a burger.  Tain looked like an interesting town and I wished I could have explored it further, but my GPS told me that I still had another nine miles to Dornoch so I headed west to pick up the dreaded A9

Today was a “Bank Holiday” (three-day weekend) in Scotland, so the highway was very busy with traffic presumably returning home.  I could see Dornoch just across the Firth but to get there I had to cross a bridge, which was about two miles away. As I approached the bridge I saw the first sign to John O’Groats that I’d seen since leaving Land’s End.  A short distance after crossing the Dornoch Firth Bridge I entered field and sat down to tend to my aching feet and watched a dear run back and forth trying to figure out how to get to the other side of a fence.  From there, I linked-up with a surprisingly busy minor road that took me all the way to Dornoch.

Dornoch is a seaside resort and former Royal burgh on the north shore of the Dornoch Firth.  It has the thirteenth-century Dornoch Cathedral, the Old Town Jail which is now a shop, and the previous Bishop’s Palace which is now the well-known Dornoch Castle Hotel.  It is also notable as the last place a witch was burnt in Scotland and where the pop star Madonna had her son Rocco christened in Dornoch Cathedral, the day before her wedding to Guy Ritchie in nearby Skibo Castle.

I had a very enjoyable dinner at the One Up Restaurant.  As the older couple at the next table got up to leave, the gentleman, hearing my American accent, asked if he could sit down as ask me a few questions about the States.  While he went to the bar for “one more too many,” I spoke with his wife, Jan.  She had recently come back from a trip to Chicago and wants to take a trip down Route 66.  Ian wanted to know about all kinds of things, everything from American Indians to Cajuns and what theMason-Dixon Lineis.  After about two hours we said our good bys.  When I went to pay my bill, I was told that Jan had already taken care of it.  I need to get a thank you card before I leave tomorrow.