Journey to the end of the road.......John 'O Groats

Published: July 17th 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY

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Ullapool to John O'Groats and back

Tuesday 14th July
Journey to the end of the road............John ‘O Groats
We hadn’t realised that the A99 road on mainland Britain doesn’t actually finish at the most northerly point.That honour falls to a lesser road a little further west of the small famed village of John “ Groats .That road being the B855 ending at Dunnet Head.
But it doesn’t sound right to say that we have been from Lands End to Dunnet Head as we are sure no one outside the village of Dunnet,about 4 miles from the headland actually knows where that place is.So we will opt for John ‘O Groats as our destination as we want to also set foot at Lands End ,at the bottom of the Britain,in about 10 days time when we return to England.
The weather has deserted us today and light rain is falling as we go down to experience another Scottish full breakfast.I shouldn’t say this after seeing the array of food laid out for breakfast but I was a liitle disappointed that there was no black pud.!!Perhaps the delicacy was no so popular in this part of Scotland.
With two full days in Ullapool we could put off the big trip to the north until tomorrow in the hope the weather might be better but then again it might still be raining.So as we have done to date if its on the calendar for the day then we do it and a little rain shouldn’t get in our way.
Stans map shows the road north,the A835,passes through some fairly desolate territory at least in the few number of place names that appear on the route.However we have an almost full tank of diesel in RR and we are sure there will be fuel available once we get to Thurso which looks like a small sized town about three quarters through the journey.RR is very economical on fuel and we are very pleased we got the upgraded diesel version of the Clio in our Eurolease deal.
The magnificent coastal and “mountain”(we shall call them mountains for although they range only up to 1000 feet or so they are steep and appear much taller)scenery started as dropped down to the first bay after leaving Ullapool.The Western Isles,nearby and off the mainland,presented themselves in the misty rain that partially cleared to reveal towering mountains.
As the rain stopped we drove up to an observation point to take in the panoramic scenery.This is certainly going to be a day to remember if this sort of scenery continues as we progress on our route.
At the observation point the shelter had been built with the environment in mind having a roof covered in growing grass and plants put there intentionally rather than growing through neglect of the site.It was all in keeping with the surrounds.
The road had a few more corners than those we have been driving lately but the curves are less pronounced than we would experience at home if we were out for a drive on a coastal route say in the Coromandel.Perhaps we should send our road designers and engineers over to Scotland to learn how to build roads for easier driving.What do you think Brent??!!
At Loch Assynt we came across a number of cars parked and we noticed people out taking photos of the ruins of a small castle beside the loch.It does go to show that there was substantial inhabitation of the area in the past although they must have been a hardy bunch to endure the winter weather this part of Scotland gets.It is simple to work out even in summer from the snow markers that line the road where the drifts obviously are deeper from their exposure to the north.
The road proceeded on very much like in NZ crossing a range running down to the sea or a river except that the rise and fall of the road was much easier and less steep than we would experience at home.
Shortly after the ruins and over the next hill were the twin lochs of Glencoul and Glendhu and these were certainly worth the stop we made at them both.
Loch Glencoul stretched out inland before us and on its western side was a dramatic feature of an ancient earthquake fault that was possibly the most visible we have ever seen.A sign noted that geologists from all over the world come to study and photograph this faultline.
At Loch Glendhu the road travelled over a tall curved bridge built in the last 20 years to replace what was the only way to get over the water,a ferry.With the amount of traffic using the road nowadays you would queue for hours if you still had to use a ferry.
A monument here remembered a secret wartime submarine operation that went wrong and 20 or so sailors lost their lives.The inscription didn’t actually say what happened to the submarine and its sailors.Many of the sea opening lochs were used during the second world war as staging places for the Artic convoys and being so isolated one could also understand how it wouldn’t be hard to test out secret weapons etc.
On the road up the hill from the twin lochs we stopped for a photo shoot and met up with a woman on her bike.She was waiting for her 2 grandchildren to catch up with her coming from the direction we travelling to.They had caught a bus that carried their bicycles on a trailer and dropped them off at a point they wanted to cycle from and then picked them up later in the day wherever they got to on the road.She didn’t actually say where the bus originated from but we assumed it was either Thurso at one end of Ullapool at the other.Sounded like a good idea as you wouldn’t have to cycle the whole road trying to find accommodation .We passed the 2 teenagers struggling up a hill about a mile further on.Shows that Grandma was the fittest one!!!
The next 19 mile section of road to Durness was what is known as ‘single track road’ or ‘noddy road’meaning one lane with passing bays to which you steer to if you see an approaching vehicle.the idea is to try and make eye contact,if you are close enough,or to read the other drivers mind as to who is going for the passing bay and slow or stop to allow the other vehicle through.This all works very well in fact as traffic is not racing along on this scenic road and people do take in what is around them including cars coming from the other direction!!
Our pace slowed as expected over this section of road as every so often it was our turn to give way to the opposing traffic.
It didn’t take long however to reach the first ‘major’ settlement of Durness at the top of the north west coast.From here the road went in a more easterly direction towards John ‘O Groats.
The village had a range of small shops including a Spar store,which is like our local dairy in NZ and you find them all over the Britain,which sold just about everything a tgraveller or local might need.There was also fuel here although we didn’t need any and we hate to think what the price per litre was in this isolated spot.!!
The local noticeboard made for interesting reading as it had the minutes of the last local village committee meeting which included all the nitty gritty things that are important in a small outlying community. One of the more interesting ones was about an exchange between the chairperson and the Ministry of Defence about a recent bombing exercise on an offshore island that comes under the jurisdiction of the local committee for everything else but the RAF bombing exercises!!The local committee had felt that tourists and locals alike had been kept away from the bombing area too soon before the exercises and that the MoD should consider that for the next time the exercises were planned.What the minutes didn’t say was whether the area was closed hours or a day before the exercise.We were sure a days notice would have been the best considering that live bombs were to be exploded!!!
We had lunch down at the beach and took in the remains of an old church and its graveyard.These sort of places are always interesting and can often tell you a whole more about the local community over the years of settlement.
On the road out of the town we stopped also to take in the Smoo caves,a large limestone cave that actually ran under the main road that had been created by movements during the ice age and then over the years further eroded by the action of the sea during storms.A very impressive feature of the landscape.
The road then headed inland as Loch Eriball ran several miles inland from its open sea opening and was too wide to bridge.
For a good distance the road continued on an inland track until it returned to the coast at Bettyhill.With the day marching on and still quite a few miles to go to our target destination we limited out stops for the odd photograph.The road now followed the coast quite closely with sea views almost all the way.
Just short of Thurso we came across a large power station and what appeared to be some manufacturing plant or something similar.There was a change of workers shift happening and the road suddenly became very busy with workers in their cars speeding towards their homes in Thurso.
This was the only significant town we had seen all day and it was like being back in civilisation again after having the feeling that the rest of the world had gone away for the day so far.Thurso is another of those towns like many others we have passed through in Scotland that has grown on some industry added to the community and whatever the plant outside the town that we had passed was ,it certainly required a good number of workers.Along with the population growth has come the rather ugly tenement type housing and Thurso was no exception making it look a rather dark and ominous looking place.So we didn’t stop as it didn’t appear to have anything else to offer.
We bypassed the sign for the road that lead to mainland Britains most northerly point at Dunnet Head and shortly after the small settlement of gift shops,a large information centre and a pay public toilet(first we had come across in Britain)came into view and we were at the famed John ‘O Groats.
As we found a park for RR we pulled alongside a van containing the support crew for a group of 3 male cycle riders who had just completed a ride from Land’s End in 12 days.They were clearly in high spirits and cracking open the champagne.I took a group photo for them even though one of them had the cheek to think we were South Africans!@!!Whoever thought that a Kiwi accent sounds like a South African one !!!We quickly put him in his place.Perhaps it was the euphoria of finishing the gruelling bike ride!!!!
Cycle rides of the one we witnessed probably finish here everyday as it is a great tradition in the UK to ride from Lands End to John ‘O Groats.
Apart from the picture on a wall showing how far away Bluff NZ was from John ‘O Groats and a sign on a small hill that you could have your photo taken next to(it was closed because of the time of our late arrival) there was not a lot else to see.But we went down to the end of the wharf to complete the road journey and to say at least that we had been as far as the main road went.!!
This land at this top corner of Scotland was fairly flat with the countryside rolling away towards some low hills in the distance.There were plenty of sheep in the fields and this appeared to be the main type of farming in the area.
It was now near 6pm and we had a run of about 120 miles or so to get back to Ullapool via the east coast to Golspie and then westwards across the entire width at this point of the country .
Wick was the next good size town and on the outskirts was a Tesco store and an attached service station.Tesco have dropped their price for diesel in the last few days to just below a quid and even though Wick is an isolated place the price was the same as it was in the bigger towns like Inverness.
We remember Wick being made famous by a show that the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly put on here a few years ago.The show and his impressions of the outpost of Wick still make us laugh when we think about it.It didn’t take long to pass through the town and we seem to remember Billy didn’t hang around for long after his show either!!!
We were now on the A9 heading south and as it was dinnertime there was very little traffic on the relatively narrow main road ensuring we made good progress.About 45 minutes south of Wick we noticed an oil rig anchored off the coast and as the weather had cleared it was clearly visible from the coast road.
Just after Golspie we took the A839 in the direction of Lairg where the road followed a very pleasant valley twisting and turning along the river than ran down the valley.
After Lairg the A839 became a single track with passing bays and inhabitation of any sort disappeared along with any other motor vehicles.We must have travelled at least 30 miles without seeing another vehicle on the road.We could have been the last people alive in the world for that time.
What amuses us from time to time are the red wooden phone boxes that are setup in the middle of nowhere with no houses in vision.We guess that someone has a need for these phones but goodness knows how long they would take to be fixed if the phone developed a fault.We wonder even if British Telecom know exactly where some of these phone boxes are!!!
We eventually rejoined the A837 and drove the last 40 odd minutes south to Ullapool and our hotel.We had been on the road for nearly 12 hours and travelled a huge distance,much greater than what we had anticipated(not that we had actually worked out the distance in the first place before we left) but we were satisfied with what we had seen today making the day very worthwhile.


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