Sunday, May 20, 2012

Day 78: Helmsdale

Distance: 11.6 miles
Boar heads in hotel: one (that we've found so far)
One of the big decisions in a Britain-end-to-end walk is deciding which way to go: north to south, or south to north. I think we made the right decision. One reason is psychological: walking north past the highlands really feels like you are approaching the end of the earth. I know we passed through parts of Northumberland that are more sparsely populated, and the peaks of the Pennines are more rugged, but somehow this place just feels like its getting increasingly remote. Maybe the coastline plays a role (coasts are at the end of the land), or maybe it's the accents, or the Klingon translations on the street signs, or the lack of good coffee (our last B&B offered a choice: "instant" or "fresh"). Not sure, but I do know that it feels like we are approaching the end of the world.

A more practical issue is that walking on the A9 sucks. Spending three days in the first week walking on the thin edge of this road would have been just brutal. I could imagine Dawn slipping me a mickey, and waking up on a train bound for the French Riviera. But coming this direction, with so much already invested, a few days of road walking seems like a minor obstacle between us and that signpost in John O'Groats.

One thing that helps make the A9 a lot more tolerable: after six weeks of rubbish, the weather has turned brilliant! When we left this morning, it was a quiet, cool, beautiful morning, and it just got better as the day went on. I didn't even have to hunt around for a nice forecast; all the online forecasts tell us that we can expect mostly sun with highs in the mid teens for our final four days. Perfect.

The picture is the Clynelish distillery, just a mile or so down the road from Brora, where we started this morning. Even after three months, I still miss easy things on the map. If I'd have been paying attention, we could have walked right past their visitor center, maybe even had an early morning wee dram, for just a few hundred extra yards of walking. Instead, we had to be content with a view across a couple of fields.

We've been admiring drystone walls throughout our walk, and in the last two days we've come across two of my favorites. One, from yesterday, is the iron age broch - a wall that was lasted over two thousand years. And today we have the amazing curved wall in the picture above.

These last two days we've seen a few cyclists who have that end-to-end look about them. There have been plenty of them all along, no doubt, but it's only now that we are all sharing the same road: one of the very few advantages of the A9. When we saw the small convey above pulled into a layby, we stopped in to say hello. The cars and camper were there to support a half dozen cyclists, who were on the last stage of their eight (8!) day Lands End to John O'Groats ride. That's just over 120 miles per day for their route. The ride is in memory of Tony O'Connell, and his daughter Amy, who both passed away over the past two years. They are raising money for charity on the way. Fun folks to chat with and we hope they enjoyed their champagne this afternoon!

Near Helmsdale, Dawn met a lamb. "Baaa, baa. Are you my Mommy?" asked the lamb. "Baaaaa-noooo", said Dawn.

Helmsdale is a wee fishing village with a small harbor, a couple of hotels (we're staying in one) and a restaurant with terrific fish and chips.

The hotel is festooned with dead animal heads on the wall, perhaps as a warning to keep animals from coming into the hotel. It's not working, there's a large friendly dog downstairs who does not seem in the least intimidated.

Tomorrow is our longest stretch on the A9 - fifteen hilly curving miles to Dunbeath. Hopefully Larry's matching run is on a more pleasant track!

Location:Lilleshall Street,Helmsdale,United Kingdom


  1. Finally, more baby lambs! Sorry about the A9 experience... seems a shame that the views are so awesome in all directions from the road but you don't have the option to walk among said views.

    1. PS: After my 12 miles this morning, I did my Sunday honey-do list, and am now enjoying a bottle of Belhaven Scottish Ale. Yes, it would be better out of a tap, and yes, it's 12 oz instead of a pint, but it taste great and helps make my virtual accompanyment a little more enjoyable. :-)

    2. PPS: I would like to suggest others tip their cap to Al and Dawn over these last four days with some kind of gesture as repayment for the pleasure derived from living vicariously through their walk via this blog. There are a hundred perfectly good ways you could do so, you don't have to walk or run a single step. Hunt down some Scottish Ale in your town and raise a glass. Can't find that? I am sure you can find some scotch - raise a (smaller) glass! Don't drink? Go out for haggis, fish and chips, or some disgusting kind of fat sausage for breakfast! Maybe drag out that Kilt you bought for burning man 9 years ago and put it on. Or find some lambs and take their picture.

      If you count Al and Dawn among your friends, you're lucky indeed, and it seems an easy way to stand in solidarity with our friends as they finish a life changing journey. Think about it, I am sure you can come up with something. Let's all join them virtually between now and Thursday night in John o Groats...

  2. dear dawn & al,

    in honor of your marathon walk across Great Britain, i'm having popcorn tonight. i'm sure it's connected . . . just not sure how! hope it's good enough!

    dawn, loved the pic of you a couple of days ago using your ipad on the bed. you look as beautiful as ever.

    daryl & i spent the weekend at the newport cabin - i thought of you and imagined you knitting in your usual spot. you're a lucky man, al. many women wouldn't willingly walk across the ends of Middle Earth! much less blurt out how much they enjoyed walking with you in the midst of it! she's a keeper!

    only 4 days left . . . . please don't let any cars smush you. that would be icky.

    hugs, julie

  3. The next bit is a dangerous section of road. Try to stay off the road as much as possible, especially when there is nobody heading south towards you. Cars heading north will be using your lane as their passing lane; they'll be coming from behind you and they won't be looking for walkers ahead of them.

    Be safe.

  4. Good idea Larry. Does walking the "relay for life" Friday night count???

    I am so proud of you two. But then I am very biased.

    1. Relay for life is an awesome event. And the good news? Everything counts! Eating popcorn, walking on a dangerous road, walking circles all night... see, it's easy!

  5. I went for a 3 mile run yesterday (think that counts), played boules (French, so possibly doesn't), drank Pimms (frightfully British so definitely does) and am knitting a red, white and blue tea cosy out of Cornish Organic Wool for the Jubilee (which I think gives me bonus points!).

  6. does watching Thomas for an hour count? Maybe some 007 tonight.

  7. The A9 road sounds horrible. I'm thinking the "A" DOESN"T stand for apple!! I'll bet you have a better word!

    Walk safely!!

    Julie W
    (reading posts backwards now!)

  8. Bram, Iris and Stephanie matched your distance paddling on Sunday. We did a nice loop in the kayaks out to an island that will hopefully feature in the Vermeulen family reunion in July (if we're lucky with the weather). The island has pretty much the swankiest campsite I have ever seen, complete with a granite kitchen. Good luck on the last few days! Looking forward to seeing you in the summer.

  9. I'm drinking tea, they have that in Scotland right?? I'll drink extra for you guys and listen to Simple Minds while I walk to class.