Monday, 30 July 2007

Day 1 - John O' Groats to Helmsdale

July 16th 2007

Weather overcast as rain theatened from the south. Departure finally at 10.30 am from the Start/Finish line outside the Groats Hotel. We didn't use the signpost for which there is a charge for photography. The signpost is removed by its keeper each day at 6pm to prevent illicit snapshots.

From left to right at the start line: Josh Wicks, John Jarrom, Josh Knowles, Tom Chambers, George Hutton.

After Len and I had finished packing Bertha, and taken a few sneaky photos with the signpost in the background we got underway too, stopping at Duncansby Stacks very near John O' Groats. These are two formations similar to the Old Man of Hoy on Orkney, in layered Old Red Sandstone. A lighthouse stands at Duncansby. We took the footpath to see the stacks passing an incredible seabird nesting sanctuary. Fulmars, gulls, cormorants and even puffins can be seen nesting at different levels down the cliffs.

Down the road from the huge, new eco-Tesco at Wick, we stopped off at the Caithness Cheese production point, a small dairy where a man and a woman make the cheese from whey and compress it in cylinders. Herbs and spices are added to the curds by liberal shakings from Schwarz catering products. We tasted some of the fresh cheese and bought 3 mature ones. A four year old boy standing outside in an oversize sweater proved very pleased to see us. It's rather deserted up there. As the old man said, there's no jobs and the people have to go away. But the social security is good!

They bemoaned the new Tesco. The small shops that used to stock their cheese locally for sale to tourists, were finding it hard to make ends meet as a result of the competition from the new store. They were going to have to find other marketing outlets for the cheese. Government regulations meant that they couldn't use all the spare milk to feed the calves and a lot has to be thrown away.

Dark clouds had been threatening all morning and heavy rain began to fall halfway between John O' Groats and Helmsdale, so we were all pleased to get to Helmsdale Hostel.

Helmsdale Hostel is now independent and has been refurbished by an enterprising lady called Irene Drummond. She had heard that the Scottish YHA intended to close it, when it would have been pulled down and the land used for building flats. The place has character.

Don't believe anything you might hear from the Scottish YHA about the hostel being closed. It is well and truly open and hospitable.

The lads were soaked by the time they reached the hostel at 3.30 , but Irene had stoked up a roaring log fire, the beds in the dormitories were made, and there was an amply furnished kitchen with settees, books, games and a very large table to sit and eat and or talk. Which we did, with Jamie and Tim who were biking the other way and expecting to finish at John O' Groats the next day, and with Ian, who had been panning for gold in them thar hills.

Two en suite family rooms are also available.

We found a tremendous and possibly unusually furnished restaurant in town called Le Mirage. Look out for the mixed grill. Photo shows the guys consulting the menu beneath a pink fringed umbrella!

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