The Road goes ever on and on; Down from the door where it began;
Now far ahead the Road has gone; And I must follow, if I can;
Pursuing it with eager feet; Until it joins some larger way;
Where many paths and errands met; And whither then? I cannot say.

[JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings]

Thursday, 31 July 2008

LEJOG: Average Distances

Of course, I couldn’t just close the spreadsheet once I’d worked out our total mileage. I did a few sums to look at the average daily distances that we walked.

Overall we walked on 80 days, covering 1240 miles, so on the simplest level we covered an average of just over 15 miles per day. But that’s a skewed figure, because in lieu of taking rest days, we had some short days (the shortest being just under 4.25 miles).

So, to give a truer figure, I categorised our walking days into ‘full’ and ‘half’ days. A bit of an arbitrary categorisation, with the definition of ‘full’ being over 10 miles, and half being 10 miles or under.

Working on that basis, we averaged around 16.5 miles per day on a full day and around 7.5 miles per day on a half day.

Mick not only did some rather more complicated sums, but he also did some pretty pictures to illustrate. The graph above shows our five day running average mileage for the duration (Miles are up the side, the day number is across the bottom; you can spot where the short and the rest days fell!).

LEJOG: The Distance

The route that I plotted to take us from Land’s End to John O’Groats, via the Lizard and Dunnet Head, was 1252 miles long.

Some of that route, when viewed on paper rather than on a 17” screen, didn’t make sense and some of it wasn’t feasible. Sometimes the route looked perfectly good on paper, but when we got there we found from the lie of the land that we could cut off a corner and omit some road walking. Barely a day passed when we didn’t make some modification.

I’ve just finished plotting the route that we actually walked.

The final ‘official’ mileage of 1240 wasn’t wildly different from the plan.

That of course is based on measuring OS maps using Anquet Mapping. I’m convinced that we actually walked further. Some of those paths alongside lochs are shown as very straight indeed. In reality they are not. Likewise where we went over pathless passes, we undoubtedly meandered more than I can reflect with a line on a map.

That’s not to mention the couple of occasions (in places where the navigation couldn’t have been easier or more obvious) we put our minds in neutral and found ourselves walking 180 degrees in the wrong direction – but I don’t think that we can really count those aberrations as part of our overall mileage!

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Podcast Bob

Since the very first Backpackinglight Podcast (now The Outdoors Station Podcasts) I listened to, I’ve been a fan.

In my opinion, you just can’t beat Podcast Bob for listening material when lying in a sleeping bag in the wilds or when out running.

I arrived back from our little walk knowing that I would have some listening to catch up on and thinking that it would force me to get back into the running routine.

I’m afraid to say that I failed to resist temptation. I didn’t use the Podcasts to bribe myself into going for a run, but rather overdosed with a couple of days of listening whilst wielding a paint brush.

In particular, I listened to the Cape Wrath series. Here's the player thingy for Part 1; you'll find Parts 2 to 5 on the Audio Podcast Page at The Outdoors Station:

Cape Wrath Trail - Pt 1

MP3 File

I now want to go and walk the Cape Wrath trail (or at least a good chunk of it, up to Cape Wrath). I even came up with a plan to fit it in this year, but Mick put his foot down and pointed out that we already have enough scheduled in.

If you’re not familiar with what The Outdoors Station has to offer, then I recommend that you pop over for a look and a listen. And I challenge you to listen to the Cape Wrath Series and not want to go and walk it!

(Oh, and if you look carefully you may find a Podcast that I recorded with Bob the week before last; I can’t possibly recommend that one because I’m a harsh critic of myself in the medium of recorded speech; I much prefer the written word for conveying my own thoughts – but it’s there if you want to listen to it.)

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Two Weeks

Looking rather pleased to be at JOG
Photo* courtesy of Luke Unsworth

Can you believe that it's only two weeks ago that we reached the end of our walk? It seems like half a lifetime ago.

Roll on the next trip!

(* It's rather a good photo, I think, having caught us completely unawares. It's worth clicking on it to see the bigger version)

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Dartmoor Goes Awry

Actually, that heading is perhaps a bit misleading. I imagine that Dartmoor today is exactly as it should be. It was just our day that went awry.

Just a couple of hours after I posted yesterday’s report, I awoke to find Mick writhing in pain and looking somewhat less than well.

After a couple of trips out of the tent, we spent the rest of the night with the doors unzipped so as to disturb less our neighbours and Mick spent a poorly night. We assume it was food/water/unclean implements poisoning.

So, instead of a lazy start to the day and a pleasant amble back across the moor to our starting point, we had very little sleep and at 4.45am, as the day was getting light, I figured I may just as well go and get the car, park it at the nearest road and evacuate Mick to the nearest hotel with en-suite bathroom.

It’s not the ideal circumstances in which to be out walking at that hour of day, but it was a mighty fine morning for it. The sky was clear, the moon was still up and a heavy mist clung to the fields below me, with the higher ground poking out. I did break stride to take a photo, but it just doesn’t do the spectacle justice. A sea of cloud over the fields

Given the circumstances, I didn’t take the scenic route. I went to the nearest road, power walked along it for a mile or so and then picked up the disused railway line – at the very same point where we had picked it up during our LEJOG. I had said, those three months ago, that I’d like to return to Dartmoor. What I didn’t expect, after an excellent day yesterday sampling the place, was to be repeating part of the LEJOG route early this morning.

The notable thing about the railway track was that it was quiet, and I don’t mean an absence of people (I would have been very taken aback to have met anyone there at 5.30 on a Sunday morning!). There wasn’t even any bird song. Rabbits did abound, but that only gave me a visual diversion.

I covered the 5.5 miles or so in very good time and just before 7am, as heads were starting to poke out of other tents, I arrived back to pack away and to bundle an even poorlier looking Mick out of the tent.

We didn’t book into the local Travelodge as planned. Mick insisted that he would be fine to make the 3 hour journey back north, and admittedly early on a Sunday morning is one of the better times to contend with the motorways. My brake pedal was not used between joining the A30 and leaving the M5, about 170 miles later.

I’m pleased to say that he’s all better now, and we’ve both caught up on that sleep we missed last night.

An unfortunate end to our weekend away, but we agreed that even with the less-than-ideal weather, yesterday was a very good and very enjoyable day, and that it was good to catch up with John Hee, Aktoman, Darren, Alan Sloman and Litehiker and to meet Martin and Martin.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Boggy Yomps on Dartmoor

We've sat down for over a week now. It felt like time to get out walking again, and what better excuse was needed than to join a planned meet up of some of the Outdoor Bloggers.

It didn't start too well. We arrived at the car park in the rain, which made me reach for the contact lenses even though our walk in to the proposed camping spot was short. That's when I found out that I only had lenses for my (stronger) right eye with me. It was a bit of a dizzy and lopsided walk in.

The tent village was already set up when we arrived; our tent swelled it to a tent town and later arrivals made it a tent city.

Today didn't dawn with any improvemment in the weather. Heavy showers were passing through and it wasn't looking a happy walking day.

Luck was with us. By the time Mick and I were packed away the skies were clearing and the day was showing promise.

Four of us set out at the same time, but in different directions, only to meet again half an hour later, from which point we spent the day together, variously in short periods of sunshine and equally brief periods of showers.

We'd just all donned full waterproofs with hats and gloves when we were passed by a couple wearing cropped trousers and vest tops. We had to wonder if there was a warmer microclimate a hundred yards to our right!

The route we followed had been designed by Mr. Sloman. It was an interesting route. Bogs features quite prominently, along with knee length grass hiding big holes. Quite an adventure really. I was rather pleased to be feeling quite fit at the moment, else it could have been hard work!

By the time the tent city reformed at a different location (with further swollen numbers, 9 tents tonight) the day was brightening up - indeed it even became sunny as we all wandered around being very sad, oohing and aaahing at other people's gear.

We've now retired to a pub to consider the day's activities over a pint of beer. A fine way to end a good day of walking.

(Post Script: I would have added some photos of the walk itself, except that I really excelled in taking poor photos on this particular day, so just the two of the tent cities will have to suffice.)

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

LEJOG - Re-Living the Journey

Even though I’d printed my own maps on A4 paper, which seemed at the time to be a disposable entity, when it came to the walk I couldn’t bear to throw those pages away. They’d taken me an absolute age to print and cost a small fortune in ink, so I decided instead to post them home in batches and to justify the keeping of them I annotated them with our actual route where it deviated from the plan.


I’m now just going through the process of re-plotting the route. It’s not a necessary exercise, but I want to know the measured mileage of the route we actually walked, rather than what we planned to walk, and in the absence of an internet connection to keep me occupied in an evening, it’s keeping me out of trouble.


It is an exercise that’s turning out to have an unexpected benefit: I get to re-live the journey over again.


I’m surprised at how many of the days I remember in quite some detail now I look at the maps again. I’m sure that detail will soon fade.


So, just now I’m on Day 12 and see the name of ‘Thorverton’. It immediately conjures up the picture of a gorgeous sunny day and a village street with stone-cobbled ‘pavements’ (I think there may have even been a stream running down the side of the road – or perhaps I’m making that bit up), and of a village post office that has been relegated to a portacabin in a car park.


At the east side of the village there’s an immaculate triangle of a village green, with a stream running along one side and a convenient bench upon which weary walkers may rest.


It was a ‘shoe off’ break on that green, combined with a fruit snack, but I resisted bathing my feet in the stream!


Just up the road was a family who enquired whether we were walking the Exe Valley Way and with whom we chatted for a while.


Oh, I could go on… Happy days!

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Shoes, Books and Shopping

After seven days of sitting around doing nothing, this morning we were to be found ambling along a canal into Wolverhampton (which is where we’re temporarily living). It wasn’t simply a matter of getting out walking for the fun of it; we were on our way to the train station to pop over to Cotswold Outdoor in Birmingham for new footwear.

Last time we took the route of this canal (in March this year) the notable thing about it was that it looked unused. As with so many of the canals we encountered on our jaunt through Britain, it had no boats, moored nor moving. Today, being a glorious sunny day (and my goodness, it’s noticeably warmer down here than we’ve been experiencing in Scotland in recent weeks), both of the first two locks we passed had boats in them, heading uphill towards the city. Bet they were both in for a shock when they got one lock further up to find the canal behind empty of water – particularly as there’s no turning point. However, I digress.

Over to Birmingham we went, and contrary to my usual practice of trying on every piece of footwear in the shop, I was quick in my choice, buying the second pair I tried. They weren’t stocking the Salomon XA Pro XCR, which is what I had intended to buy (in a half size bigger than the toe-eating pair with which I set out from Land’s End). I came away with the Salomon Elios Mid XCR – hardly a comparable shoe to the XA Pro, but I fancied giving them a try.

Mick was equally precise in his selection. They were catering better for boys in the XA range, so he was able to get a straight replacement for the pair that he wore out quite comprehensively during April and May. Pity about the colour of the replacements; I preferred the garish green of his old ones.

He also came away with a pair of Keen Hybrids (a cross between a sandal and a shoe).

Already flinching from the thought of how much this little lot was going to come to, I managed to make it from the shoe dept (right at the back of the store) to the till without being distracted by any other goodies.

The plan then was to go straight back to the station.

Is it possible to walk past a big branch of Waterstones without falling inside? Do they have some form of person magnet?

Having accidentally stumbled inside of this immense store, I headed straight for the travel section, my mind thinking towards a copy of North to the Cape and a few other Cicerone titles. Alas, despite it being the biggest bookshop I’ve been in, they let me down. Not a single title that I wanted.

Mick heaved a sigh of relief. I won’t be plotting any more walks this week.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

A Final Weigh In

Before unpacking my bag (just to sort through a few things and wash a few things, before packing it all back up to go away next weekend) I thought I'd weigh it. Whereas most people may find themselves ditching items as they make their way on a long walk, I found myself adding little bits and pieces.

The final weight, without any food or water, but with half the tent (I finally decided to shoulder my fair weight and took half the tent (the light half!) from Peebles) and with an almost full gas canister, was 7.5kg.

That's ridiculous isn't it? To think that I've lived for three months out of a bag weighing less than your average person's bag weighs to go for a weekend city break!

Of course, food and water added significantly. Particularly during the final two or three weeks. My left shoulder is just thinking about whether to forgive me.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Home Again, Home Again...

Having slowly wended our way home (even more slowly than intended due to a ‘failed freight train’ ahead of us yesterday), via friends in Elgin for a few days, I finally hit my own sofa in the middle of today.

I am now sitting on my own sofa with a rather nice glass of red wine in my hand. I drank some very nice beer indeed during our walking adventure. I drank some truly dreadful red wine. It’s been nice this last week to discover that nice wine does still exist. But I digress.

Tonight I will sleep in my own bed for the first time in two months. Tomorrow I will sleep in it for a second consecutive night. I’m still hankering after sleeping in the same bed for three consecutive nights, but I’m going to have to wait a while - our house became occupied by Eldest Stepson, girlfriend and child in our absence so we’re off to stay elsewhere as of Monday. That will leave me without an internet connection (or at least without a reliable and legal one) for a while longer.

In the last few hours of sofa-bliss, the photos have been downloaded and I’ve been through them a few times. I am a dreadful photographer. Quite why I am in charge of the camera when I have not a single artistic bone in my body, I know not. I really have taken a lot of very poor photos.

However, there are some that do reflect well the intended view. I was particularly pleased with this one, which Mick and I both voted the best view of the trip.

This one of our best pitch isn’t bad either.

I will start working on the photos to post some soon.

What else has happened in the last week?

Well this beard which was untrimmed during the 3 month jaunt was promptly removed upon arrival in Elgin: (It was a self-photo taken by me, which explains why it's from a funny angle and the forced expression!)

Mick now looks about 12 rather than 62.

We weighed ourselves. At the time of finishing Mick was 1 stone lighter than when we started. I was the same weight (a good thing, but I’m definitely thinner – I’ve never been so muscular; I even have muscles in my arms, which have always been a particularly pathetic part of my physique). We reckon that had we been able to weigh ourselves a week earlier we would both have been lighter; we really did put a lot of dedication into eating massive amounts in that last week, mainly thanks to some B&Bs and eating establishments.

We’ve also been rejoicing the joys of a change of clothes and clean underwear. The very first thing we did on arriving in Elgin was to pop to Asda for a new outfit (a shopping trip that due to a lack of long sleeved attire in the store saw me buying an Age 11-12 school jumper; I refused Mick’s request to buy the short skirt to go with it!).

As if being clean shaven and having clean clothes on isn’t exciting enough, tonight I cooked fresh vegetables. It involved a knife and a chopping board. From the depths of my mind I recalled how to use both. It was a joy.

All of that is great. But I’ve not been for a walk for five days now. I’m ready for the next outing. Not a long one, just a short trip out …

…but I am looking at that weather map and focussing on the south-east corner and the north-west corner. Mick’s not biting…


Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Who Was It?

As we were waiting for the bus out of John O'Groats this morning the photograph man left his signpost and came over to ask if the other three people had found us yesterday afternoon - three people who went and asked him whether we had arrived.

As I described yesterday, Steve came and found us, and he must have been one of the three.

But there was apparently another couple asking after us.

We have no idea who that might have been.

Who was it? We'd really like to know.

The Day After - Duncansby Head

(The following was typed on the Pocketmail this morning whilst waiting for a bus to take us from JOG to Inverness. It's a long old way north is JOG, isn't it? Three hours on a non-stop bus. Phew. It'd take a while to walk that far wouldn't it...)

At 6.45 this morning we were stood by the lighthouse on Duncansby Head - in dense fog.

As we approached we could hear the sea but couldn't see it and knew that there was a lighthouse but had no idea whether we were 100 yards away or half a mile.

It finally appeared out of the gloom. We took photos and our journey was over.

Around we turned to walk back to JOG and suddenly the fog lifted - not far but enough to be able to make out some of the nearer cliffs.

So, am I pleased that it's over?

Not in the sense that I was itching to stop walking. Had our route been longer we would happily have carried on walking.

However, I am pleased to have finished what we set out to do and I am quite happy to stop walking now that we've done that (no considerations of walking home!).

Would I do it again? In principle, I absolutely would. It has been a fantastic experience of which I have positively enjoyed almost all.

But for now I shall enjoy living a more normal life for a while.

The next significant outing will be Coast to Coast in September - much shorter but still something to which to look forward.

Over the next few weeks I will put together further thoughts and reflections on the trip and the gear.

I hope you've enjoyed the daily blog of the trip and a big thank you goes out to everyone who has donated to Macmillan Cancer Support in recognition of our efforts - I have been overwhelmed by the generosity. (And for anyone who hasn't but wants to add a few pounds to the pot, then it's really easy via Justgiving; just click on the link on the right.)

Day 84 - Dunnet to John O'Groats

7 July
Distance: about 20 miles

It was an early alarm and an early hour as I stuck my head between the curtains hoping for sunshine. It was raining.

By twenty to nine we were standing on Dunnet Head, taking a self-photo (there was no-one else around at that hour to take one for us). If the distances on the road signs are to be believed, we kept up an incredible speed to the Head. We didn't quite believe the road signs.

My focus by this point was purely on getting to JOG. Mick kept telling me that I was marching away, but being so close I didn't want to dally.

We didn't pause for second breakfast or elevenses, but did make the time to pop into the hotel at Mey for tea and biscuits (which cost the same as our extensive breakfast yesterday morning), then it was back onto the road (soon turning onto a minor one for traffic avoidance) for the last 7 miles.

About five miles out, the sky started to show signs of brightening. An island started appearing out of the gloom off the coast. Twenty minutes later it was bright enough to see that there were houses on that island. It looked like I could get my wish for a sunny walk-in afer all.

With my knees and Mick's feet aching from the constant fast road walking we paused for lunch with a couple of miles to go. I really hope that that's the last time in a long time that I have a lunch that involves oatcakes, cheese or sardines!

When the 'end point' at JOG comes into view it is hardly an overwhelming sight. A collection of buildings that look less than attractive. The views off-shore are undeniably good (and the weather was decidedly fine by now) but that was the case further up the coast too.

Nevertheless, JOG was where we were headed and before we knew it we were there. Across the car park we walked, having spotted the all important finish-line sign post.

Just then a car pulled up alongside. A window opened and Mick was asked if he knew where the finish was. He was about to answer when he realised that this was someone he knew.

My cousin and her husband and my aunt and Maurice had decided, way back when, to take a holiday in Scotland this week with the hope that they could come and surprise us. We were indeed surprised (very very pleasantly so) and they could not have timed their arrival better.

Photos were taken at the sign-post (timed at this end so that the arms were there and so was the man with the letters) then off we went to find celebratory drinks.

The JOG hotel is no more so we were back down the road to the Sea View just a quarter of a mile away.

We were just supping a bottle of bubbly when appeared a chap who asked if we were Gayle and Mick who had just walked from Land's End.

We soon learned that this was Steve. He originally hales from half a mile up the road from Land's End, but now lives up here. It was his sister's B&B in which we stayed the night before we set out and having heard from her about our journey has followed the Blog and came to meet us. It was one final really nice surprise meeting, so thank you Steve for coming over.

He also left us with another £20 for the Macmillan fundraising.

We should now be in the tent as we were meant to be camping tonight. That plan went awry when Mick went to the bar and accidentally ordered a double room with the pint of beer. Hey ho. I suppose I'll just have to put up with another comfy bed...

Our journey is not entirely over. Tomorrow we will get up early and make the jaunt over to Duncansby Head, just for completeness. Having carried my bag every step of the way from Land's End to John O'Groats via Lizard and Dunnet Head, my left shoulder will rejoice at an unencumbered stroll tomorrow.

Once we've completed those couple of miles I will give my overall thoughts of the journey. I will also see if I can finally bully Mick into using the Blogging Device and saying a few words too.

Blogging Delays

There's a blogging conspiracy going on in John O'Groats.

We finished the walk, I finally typed the blog post and then couldn't post it.

It turned out to be the only point on the whole route where no telephone would work to send the posts. Full signals on both mobiles wouldn't get them through and not even a pay phone (which has been the fall-back in other places) would work.

So, sorry for the delay to anyone who has been waiting to read about our last day and a bit.

I'm now on a real computer (first time in 2 months!) and am about to re-type my posts. It could take a while. I'm so used to the Pocketmail keyboard that I'm now struggling with a proper sized one!

Monday, 7 July 2008

Day 84 - Mission accomplished!

Mick and Gayle arrived at John O' Groats at 2.40pm today.
Gayle will post later once they're done celebrating (and when they've got a decent phone signal).

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Day 83 - West of Watten to Dunnet

6 July
Distance: 17.5 miles
No. of killer wee dugs: 1
No. of overly frisky cows: lots of herds, fortunately all the other side of fences.

There is a rule that says that the earlier we want to get away, the longer it takes us to get through our morning ritual and get on the road. Today we proved that the opposite is also true.

Today our schedule was dictated by the fact that the shop in Watten, which we needed to visit, doesn't open until 10am on a Sunday, as a result of which we had arranged breakfast at the Brown Trout Hotel for 9am.

That meant that we didn't need to leave the campsite until 8am, which gave us a bit of a lie-in.

Predictably, with time on our side, we were ready to go in record time. Then, despite trying our best to dawdle along the road, we kept up too fast a pace. We found ourselves in Watten at just ten past eight.

The hospitality at the hotel was fantastic. We explained that we were in no rush and they happily let us take a very leisurely breakfast, staying in their dining room until 10am. During that time we had orange juice and cereal and toast and tea and a huge cooked breakfast and more toast (we were quite hungry, even though we'd already had first breakfast at 7am) and more tea, followed by more tea. And the charge for this huge breakfast? Well, let's just say that I've paid more for a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits. We left very happy indeed.

Much of the day was unremarkable once we got back on the road. The early mist turned to drizzle, slowly getting us wetter and wetter until we changed our windproofs for waterproofs. A while later I had to concede that waterproof trousers were required. Then it started to rain in earnest and out came the overmittens. This was not what the forecast said we would get.

On we sped, along various little lanes requiring minimal navigation and with little of interest except for herds of cows so frisky and stampeding that they had me quite nervous even though they were on the other side of (very flimsy looking, low) fences.

Then we approached Reaster and our day took a surreal turn for a short while.

First there was the ramshackle collection of buildings, with a large collection of old pony-traps, in various states of decay, lining the road. It was here that we were accosted by two friendly dugs and one wee killer dug.

Around the next corner, we were overtaken by an old-fashioned open-topped London Bus. This wasn't a main road we were on; it wasn't a B-road. It was an obscure little lane. The bus seemed somewhat out of place.

Then we went around another bend and towards us was walking an old woman. She was wearing wellington boots, a plastic rain hat, a mackintosh and under the mackintosh she apparently had on a nightie, even though it was 1pm and she was walking up a remote lane in the rain.

At best she looked eccentric, and maybe she was, but she also turned out to be a very nice woman indeed.

She stopped us to ask where we were walking from and to and we had a good chat with her. When she learned what we were doing she turned around and walked back with us to her house where she told us to wait by the gate. Off she trotted and a few moments later came back with £6 for Macmillan and a big bar of chocolate for us. She then shook us by the hand, wished us well and we continued along smiling at another random encounter with kindness - and at the surrealness of the previous half an hour.

At Greenland (really, check the map, we weren't in the wrong country!), in spite of the mist and rain, we got a glimpse of the sea. The sea off the north coast of Scotland. That was a very pleasing moment.

After about 15 or so miles of tarmac, we exercised those liberal access rights that apply in Scotland and cut across the Links of Dunnet, exactly as I had assumed in my route plotting that we could. The path marked on the map was not evident beyond the first hundred yards or so, but the going was easy - and it was very pleasant to get some softer ground under my boots.

Across this ground I had a chat on the phone with Vic. She's helped us out with lots of Googling as we've made our way north and I had one more request. Having missed out on our planned B&B in Watten last night and given the weather, we thought that it would be nice to have a bed tonight instead (getting soft, you see, now we're near the end). Vic duly Googled and having walked half a mile or so into tomorrow's route, we're now at the Northern Sands Hotel in Dunnet.

Yes, we have hit the north coast.

We still have a distance to go on our route, but I think that technically we can now claim to have walked "end-to-end".

Tomorrow we will make an early start for our final push for both Dunnet Head and John O'Groats.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Day 82 - Before Dalnawillan Lodge to Outside Watten

5 July
Distance: about 18 miles
Distance to go: 38 miles
No. of people seen out walking in last 7 days: 0

The road goes ever on and on...

That's how it felt a couple of miles into this morning. The landscape had become completely flat featureless moorland, with the middle-distance and beyond obscured by low cloud and a mist, so the only notable thing we could see was the estate dirt-access road stretching out in a straight line ahead of us, seemingly forever.

Now, I'm quite a fan of bleak moorland, but being so flat and featureless this tested even my usual enthusiasm for such wide open spaces.

Finally reaching the end of the estate track, we deviated from our plotted route. Looking at the map last night we decided that the riverside route was probably more trouble than it was worth when we could just take the minor road that ran alongside it. I'm all for road avoidance, but this bit seemed to just be making our lives more difficult than necessary for no appreciable scenery or terrain gain.

However, I did decide, on the spur of the moment that we should cut off a small corner of the transition from the road back to the route by traipsing across country.

After the wet grass and heather we encountered on the way, not to mention the odd bog (plenty of those around here!) we reached the track with our trousers drenched to mid-thigh and our boots letting in water.

The yomp had also warmed me up. From yesterday's short shirt sleeves and trouser vents open, this morning I was wearing long-sleeves under two jackets and hat and gloves. Once on the track I stopped to remove a jacket and mentioned a bar of chocolate (hungry day today).

Left to my own devices I probably would have had the chocolate on the move, but Mick got out his sit mat and sat down - and it turned out to be a very good thing that he did.

Sitting there trying to make half a chocolate bar each feel filling, we surveyed the map and rather belatedly realised that if we had stayed on the road and modified our route, we could get to the campsite 2.5 miles outside of Watten.

When the Watten accommodation crisis arose we had explored all sorts of options, but had discounted the campsite as a 2.5 miles out-and-back detour was too far at the end of a 21 mile day and we could see no obvious way of cutting across to it from our route.

The reason that I missed the obvious was that it involved wandering off the edge of the map twice (the downside of A4 maps; at least with full size OS maps you're only likely to wander off them once in a day!).

Once we knew we could make it to the campsite within a reasonable mileage the decision easy, even though it involved road walking. In fact, I was positively excited at the thought of a shower and facilities.

It's not that I have an issue with wild-camping. Indeed, in my opinion it has many benefits over campsites. However, my limit is about 3 nights out, after which I like to get a proper wash*. Added to that, we're now in the lowlands, which makes the drinking water issue a bit more tricky.

So, ruing the fact that we'd unnecessarily yomped through wet grass and got ourselves wet, and that we'd walked a bit further than we needed to, we turned left along the track instead of right and went back to the road.

Traffic was not an issue on these roads. We were passed by half a dozen cars on the first stretch of and maybe a dozen on the next.

Then we wandered off the map again, which required a little bit of fingers-crossed that the tiny road would come out where we needed it to.

Fingers were then crossed that the campsite existed, that it took tents and that they had room for us (and that it was where we thought it was; we could just see the tent symbol on the edge of the map, what we didn't know was whether there was an arrow pointing to somewhere on another off-the-map road).

Luck was on our side. After some remarkably fast walking (it was the shower thought that spurred me into almost a trot for the last 8 miles) we arrived to find that the campsite was where we needed it to be. They did squeeze us in. The shower was hot and I was able to use the washing machine (to remove half a peat bog from my trousers) for free.

Even better, a phone call to the Brown Trout Hotel in Watten, which had no room for us tonight, has resulted in an agreement that they will serve us a cooked breakfast in the morning.

All in all, it's been a rather good day!

(* Had I known yesterday that I would be able to shower today, I wouldn't have run naked into the River Thurso for a quick wash down last night. That was one bracing experience!)

Day 81 - Kinbrace to before Dalnawillan Lodge

4 July
Distance: 16 miles
Number of people seen out walking since last Saturday: 0

It was another hard day, this time because of the terrain, but on paper it seems that it should be the last hard terrain day. We have a bit of cross country tomorrow, then the rest is on roads and tracks.

Having left our camping spot this morning it was back across the rickety suspension foot bridge bearing a warning that it was unsafe structure and that use was at our own risk, then along the river bank. The river bank gave varied walking; sometimes the going was good, sometimes it was exceedingly wet. We both hit the road, after a mile and a half or so, with comprehensively wet feet.

When I plotted the last week or ten days of the route I kept commenting on the fact that we would have wet feet. I wasn't wrong! However, I did have a secret weapon in my bag and at second breakfast I changed into my Sealskinz. Bliss!

The climb up Knockfin Heights was broken when we stopped at a good stream to fill up our drinking water (an "aquafaff"), then it was up through heather and tussocky grass onto the huge flat plateau.

The plateau is the home to many peat hags and bogs and after successfully getting ourselves to the trig point we took a bearing and headed off to try to find the correct valley into which to descend.

It was during the bearing following that I decided to take a quick swim in a peat bog.

A bit too far into wet peat I wandered and within a split second my left leg disappeared to the knee. Feeling the other foot fast disappearing there seemed only one thing I could do to save myself from sinking further: I sat down - straight into the bog.

So, not only were both of my feet stuck, one to the knee, the other to the ankle, but I also had a very wet bottom.

It's a good job Mick was there, or I could have been in quite a fix trying to get out. Hoisting me (a giggling me) from under the arms he dragged me out.

For the next hour or so I had the unpleasant experience of walking in wet trousers and wet pants. Thank goodness for Paramo Parameta A fabric - it does dry quickly. However, I am now left with filty trousers complete with very dodgy water marks that make it seem like I've had a bit of an accident...

Having found the correct stream by which to descend, we followed it, although the descent was so gradual it felt like we were still on the plateau.

It seemed that it wasn't my day when about half way down I found a concealed hole with my left leg. It suddenly disappeared down to the knee and I pitched forward, falling flat on my face - and getting the front of my trousers wet. Hey ho.

Miraculously, I made it to the track, which gave us easy walking for the final few miles of the day, without injury.

We've pitched for the night alongside the River Thurso, not far from the estate track. We went through the usual process in pitching, which we adopted some time ago. I lay down on the ground to check for flatness and levelness and Mick marked the area with two walking poles. We then pitched the tent. Usually it works well to ensure that we don't stray in the pitching onto less flat ground. Alas, just to round off my day nicely, I climbed into the tent tonight, after everything else was inside, to find that there's a lump on my side. We can't quite be moved to change the position of the tent, so it looks like I'm in for a less-than-comfy night.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Day 80 - Loch Choire to Kinbrace

3 July
Distance: 18.5 miles
No. of people seen out walking since Saturday: 0

As I woke up this morning I turned to look out of the window of the bothy, which was right next to my head. It was a fine sight: the calm loch reflecting the surrounding hills and an absolutely clear blue sky.

Having the room to manoeuvre and not having to pack the tent away we were away earlier than our usual 7.30, following the grassy track along the side of the loch.

Three miles later we passed by Loch Choire Lodge and for the next four hours we followed its unsurfaced access road. At 11 miles long it's far enough that apparently the Royal Mail is excused from making daily deliveries to the house.

The track could have been tedious from the outset, going on for so long, but for the first half we had the clear views to admire. We also had the interludes of a couple in a car, driving from the lodge to a nearby loch to fish, who stopped for a chat (branding us as mad, but that's a common occurence), then a while later we had an air show put on by some Tornados and a Typhoon.

Such things could not sustain us for the entire distance. The sky had clouded over by the second half of the track and it was depressing to think that we still had a couple of hours of the same surface and similar views to go. Harry Potter helped both of us through the final hour.

By the walk in to Kinbrace we were wondering if 'last half mile' syndrome has become 'last half week' syndrome as both of us were struggling. We did of course make it, and pretty early in the day too (just 3pm), which gives us a good rest ready for another pathless yomp tomorrow.

I'm not entirely happy with where we're camped tonight. The lie of the land means that we couldn't reasonably get out of view of some of the houses in Kinbrace even though we're a good distance away. Hopefully no-one minds a tent sitting up across the other side of the river plateau and we will of course be off first thing in the morning to tackle the rather wet looking Knockfin Heights.

Day 79 - Lairg to Loch Choire

2 July
Distance: 17.75 miles
Number of people seen out walking since Saturday: 0

Sodding flies! What is it about our heads and backpacks that makes them swarm around us whenever we go anywhere in the vicinity of a forest?

There was a lot of forest today. About six miles that felt more like six weeks. And for all of those six long miles we were accompanied by sodding flies. Rarely did one land on either of us, they just flew around and around and around our heads.

This was another forest that gave us a navigational difficulty. "Cross the stream...and head uphill due north through a narrow gap in the trees, now on a visible path" says the Cicerone guide. Except that trees grow wider as well as taller and even though this is a very recent guide there's been time for the trees to grow wide so as to block the entrance to the 'narrow gap'. It took us far longer than was reasonable to locate it (funnily enough exactly where it should have been) having tried a couple of dead ends first. Again, I was rather reluctant to bash through the trees in the absence of finding the right way.

It was a joy to finally leave the pine trees behind, even though that was when the going started getting rather harder.

For much of the next five or so miles there were sometimes vehicle tracks, but they were ruts in very wet ground so not good walking. The walk that didn't look too bad on paper transpired to be a hard-going boggy, tussocky yomp.

My legs were giving out and my mind screaming at me to stop before we reached the summit of our day (after a five mile slow and steady climb). Two things kept me going: the thought of how lovely it would be to camp at the head of Loch Choire and a Mars bar. I'm not a huge fan of Mars bars, but it was sugar and it certainly gave me the perk I needed to finish the job of getting up the hill.

On the final push to the loch (positively striding out, all weariness gone once the end was in sight) a noise made me look around. It took me a few moments to locate the source. A large group of deer on the other side of the valley were having a good chat amongst themselves, with barking and higher pitched mewing sorts of noises predominating.

At the loch, which is indeed a stunning setting, we eyed up our likely pitch but thought we'd just have a look at the wooden hut a few paces further on before we pitched. The hut turned out to be an ex-stable that has quite recently been upgraded as a bothy. It's not big but it's very light and airy.

It wasn't a difficult decision to make. The tent was forgotten. We'll spend tonight indoors, kipping on a generous sleeping platform after an evening spent in plastic garden chairs - luxury!

I'd been kicking myself for the last few weeks for not joining the Mountain Bothies(y?) Association before we left and finding out whether there were any bothies on our route. Having stumbled across a few of them and making use of this one I will give my thanks upon my return home by joining.

Our arrival at this hut was perfectly timed. No sooner had we decided to stay than we heard rain upon the roof. Showers are passing through at intervals and the wind is fair howling. However, we completed our walk in fine weather (wall-to-wall sunshine this morning, and about time too) so it can rain as much as it likes for the next few hours!

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Day 78 - Oykel Bridge to Lairg

1 July
Distance: 16.25 miles
Number of killer dugs (thwarted by fencing): 2
Number of deer we witnessed trip over a fence: 1 (and I always thought they were such elegant movers!)

When you've requested your breakfast for a certain hour of the morning, been told that the requested time is no problem, and given your order the night before, you rather expect to receive your breakfast at the appointed hour, don't you?

Not at the Oykel Bridge Hotel, I'm afraid. We sat for twenty five minutes beyond the agreed time waiting for our cooked breakfasts, which saw us leaving rather later than we would have liked.

It was fast walking today, though, and shorter than the schedule said for having taken a more sensible route.

For the initial part of the day we took a riverside and track route that kept us off the main road, then from about five or so miles in we were mainly on the A road. It's not a busy A road - it's single track with less traffic than the lanes at home, so aside from the fact that it was tarmac underfoot, it wasn't a bad walk.

We had company too. A whole swarm of flies that accompanied us pretty much the whole way from the excellent general store at Rosehall to Lairg. They must be very well exercised flies now and they certainly didn't respond to repeated requests that they 'procreate and travel'.

We're not entirely looking forward to tomorrow. The walk looks fine on paper, but our bags are going to be mighty heavy. We've not resolved our accommodation problem in Watten so it looks like our only option is to have a fourth consecutive wild camp a few miles before (my, we'll stink by Dunnet!). That means that we next get to a shop on Sunday. Plus we've just picked up our final resupply parcel so we're heavy on dehydrated food and gas too. My left shoulder is going to be crippled.

Day 77 - After Inverlael to Oykel Bridge

30 June
Distance: about 15 miles
Number of people seen out walking: 0

An hour and a half after leaving our night stop we arrived at the River Douchary, which was our originally intended night stop. It would have been a very fine place to camp, but we made the sensible choice to cut yesterday short, particularly given the weather.

We made today easier for ourselves. Rather than taking the scenic and largely pathless route, we took a direct line from the river up to a track on the other side of the valley. It was a track that took us the whole way to Oykel Bridge and whilst it may not have been the most attractive walking surface it made for fast progress and the surroundings were stunning.

Even better, we had fine weather today, with very good visibility. We could see for miles and that always makes for a good day.

A car park on the Corrie Muzie estate had a sign saying "Hillwalkers must use this car park", which made me wonder for what we should use it, given the lack of a car ("Dogs must be carried" came to mind).

Walking along the estate track, where a surprising number of vehicles passed us, we discussed the fact that in the whole of our trip to date no-one had offered us a lift. Obviously, we would have refused, but I had expected that every now and then some kind-wishing soul would make the offer.

In the strange way of these things, not half an hour later, just as we were finishing up lunch, a car passed us, stopped, reversed and offered us a ride.

The occupants of the car were a couple called Helen and Jim. Having declined the lift, we chatted a while. They had popped over from Ireland for the weekend to spend a couple of days in the hills, bothying. They were also so kind as to offer us food, and we came away with another £10 for Macmillan.

The walk down to Oykel, through mainly felled forestry, was entirely uninspiring, but not as uninspiring as the Oykel Bridge hotel, where we are staying tonight. It goes down as the worst value for money night of our trip.

This is a hotel that charges £110 per night for a room. Of course, that is way above our budget, but they agreed to a reduced rate of £80, which although still above budget was more acceptable to us. I expected luxury for the advertised price.

Even at the reduced rate it's poor value for money. Even if they have put us in their shoddiest room in consideration of the reduced rate it's still poor.

Our twin room (despite having booked a double) is very dated and poorly decorated. It doesn't have any electrical equipment bar a kettle - no television, no radio, no hair drier (not that I need one, but I expect one). Then there's the bathroom (ground floor, clear glass window, curtains - that don't close - hanging off their rails). Can you believe that this is a hotel that doesn't have a shower in the bathroom (unless you count the plastic hose job that you slip onto the taps via rubber connectors)? I mean, really, how much does it cost to put mixer taps and a shower curtain in?

Okay, I shall stop ranting now. On the positive side, we have comfortable accommodation and the lack of a shower does mean that we have a bath. It's a big, deep bath. I spent about a week in there.

Sitting in the bar it's obvious that this is very much a fisherman's hotel. There's lots of talk of the intricacies of fishing going on. I'd never realised that river levels are to fly-fishermen what snow levels are to skiers.

Other news of today is that we heard from Doug (LEJOGer No. 4). He reached JOG at 3pm yesterday. All being well Conrad (LEJOGer No. 2 - he took a very similar off-road route to us up here in the north) will have finished today. Last we spoke to him, three days ago, we heard that he'd had the misfortune of the sole falling off one of his boots and had effected some rather ingenious field repairs on it. I look forward to catching up with him once we're all finished.