I don't know whether it was the effects of last night's alcohol or the hostel that did my head in the most, but at 7am this morning I gave up trying to get a proper night's sleep and got ready for the off. Inverness Youth Hostel might be one of only two hostels in Scotland to receive a five-star rating from the Scottish Tourist Board, but that doesn't mean their beds are any better than normal. To say that the bunks creak in Inverness is an understatement; once again I can't believe how thankful I am for earplugs, and how inconvenient it is that I'm a light sleeper.
Still, it did get me up nice and early, and after wolfing down some pain au chocolat in the main square in the company of the local drunks I bade a fond farewell to Inverness and headed for the Kessock Bridge, an impressive suspension bridge over Beauly Firth, the pretty inlet into which the River Ness flows. I was pleased I'd made an early start because straight away I knew that this day was going to be a long one. Yet again my feet ached like industrial accidents and every step felt like it was on broken glass.
So I was in a bit of a sorry state when I reached the caravan site on the north shore of the Beauly Firth. As I plodded along, looking towards the water and admiring the view over the firth, I spotted a familiar sight on the other side of the road. There, sitting at a firth-side table and waiting for a pot of tea, was Barry.
Barry must drink more tea than China. Every walking story he tells involves at least one pot of tea, possibly with a bit of cake tucked in there too, and now I understand exactly why. I'm the kind of walker who keeps on trucking, rarely stopping until I've broken the back of the walk; this is probably why my feet are in such a state, but that's how I like to walk and at least it's got me this far. But by the time I passed Barry after a couple of miles of painful plodding, I figured I could do with a rest, so I joined him.
'Tea for two is it?' asked the proprietor when he saw I'd joined Barry, and I figured I'd go with the flow. Meanwhile Barry listened to my foot complaints with oohs and ahhs and then pulled out some pills marked 'co-proxamol' and a tube of gel bearing the legend 'ketoprofen, 2.5%.'
'Here, rub some of this in and take a couple of these,' he said, and willing to try anything by this stage, I did exactly as I was told. It would prove to be a bloody good idea. I'm not sure I'd actively recommend taking painkillers when you have sore feet, but at this stage of Land's End to John o'Groats I'm hardly going to give up just because my feet feel as if they've been crushed by a jackhammer; hell, I'd never have made it through Devon and Cornwall if I'd have given up at the pain barrier. Besides, Barry's pills and gel worked wonders and they enabled me to walk properly without compensating my gait because of the pain. They genuinely helped.
As did Barry's company. Apart from a very short section along the Severn into Bewdley, Barry and I have never actually walked together, but today we fell into step and stuck together and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. When you're feeling a little low and the road seems longer than usual, good company is a tonic, and under the spell of conversation and painkillers I practically floated along the road. I've found the last couple of weeks to be physically difficult and it's made it much harder to enjoy things; somehow, when you have someone else along, life's never quite as hard as it is when you're alone.
Trials and Tribulations
The walk went well except for a tiny section in the middle, which was the only part of the whole day that wasn't on tarmac. On the map it looked so innocent, just a little black dotted line that indicated a half-mile path along the side of a forest, linking two roads in a particularly innocent way. It looked trivial and we decided we'd have lunch when we reached the road on the other side.
Half a mile is a long, long way when the path turns out to be an overgrown disaster zone. There had obviously been a path there a very long time ago and there was evidence that some other misguided fools had tried to bash their way through the same overgrowth – probably all the other poor bastards who've been following McCloy's route – but this was no bridleway. This was a minefield of gorse, nettles and thick brush, and while I set to chopping my way through the tangle with my trekking sticks, Barry headed off to the left in search of an easier route. We both eventually made it into the field we'd been aiming for, our legs cut to shreds and stung to buggery, only to find four more fields between us and the road, each of them separated by the kind of stile that makes you consider taking your chances with the barbed wire. Add in the herd of bullocks who tried to charge us off their land – and who received a right old yelling from both of us, pissed off as we were at the gorse nightmare we'd just left behind – and that little black dotted line turned out to be one of the most impregnable parts of the entire walk from Land's End.
We couldn't believe it, and we sat there munching on our sandwiches, comparing stories about other parts of the End-to-End walk that had given us grief. And then it struck me as I bit into my BLT that I hadn't thought about my feet once since we'd hit the gorse. I'd been way too distracted.
It took a long few hours of road walking to reach Dingwall, punctuated only by a pint of shandy in a featureless village called Conon Bridge, so by the time I finally rolled up at my B&B it was 6.15pm, a respectable time to check in. I was therefore more than a little surprised to find that nobody was in; this happens a lot in the middle of the afternoon, which is only to be expected, but not during the early evening. A mobile number was tucked into the door, so I rang it.
'Oh hello,' I said when a man answered. 'I'm standing outside your B&B, which I'm booked into, and I was wondering when someone might be along to let me in.'
'Ah,' he said. 'I'm in Inverness.'
'Oh,' I said. 'Well, when will you be in Dingwall?'
'Well, I'm going to be at least an hour,' he said.
'An hour?' I said, trying not to sound too stunned. 'What, a whole hour?'
'I'm in Inverness,' he said again, as if that explained everything.
'And I'm in Dingwall,' I sighed, partly to myself. 'OK, I'll meet you here in an hour then.'
'OK,' he said, and hung up.
An hour might not sound like a long time, but when was the last time you sat on a bench in the middle of a small town, reeking of sweat with your hole-ridden tracksuit bottoms covered in thorns and little green seeds while your black T-shirt looks as if it's had a fight with the bleach bottle and lost in the messiest way possible? My hair was matted to my head, as you would be if you'd been shoved under a sweaty leather bush hat for the whole day, and my beard looked like the kind of thing you pull out of a plug-hole. The only things missing were the dog on a string and the can of Tennent's Super, and even though everyone was too polite to say anything, I felt their stares.
Half an hour later it started to rain. The whole day had passed under the most glorious of sunny skies, but the second I arrived at my B&B the skies had started to bruise and now it decided to chuck it down. It wasn't a dribble, it was proper rain, and I had to run for the shelter of an archway off the main street, where I huddled from the suddenly cold evening air, trying desperately to look like a respectable walker whose B&B just happened to be shut. I failed dismally.
Meanwhile Barry rang to say he'd had to give up on his B&B because it had turned out to be miles outside Dingwall, even though he'd specifically been told it wasn't far from the centre. He'd ended up booking into the National Hotel in the centre of town because a wedding party had apparently taken up all the B&Bs in town, and he was now ringing from his en suite, TV-blaring double room, complete with view over the high street. I looked at my watch, hungry for a shower. This was starting to get on my nerves.
Eventually 7.15 arrived and I tried the door again, but there was no answer, so I tried ringing the mobile phone and it was turned off. I even tried ringing the B&B itself, just in case the doorbell was broken, but nobody was there. I tried the same routine again at 7.20, 7.25, 7.30, 7.35, 7.40 and 7.45, at which point I rang directory enquiries, got the number of the National Hotel, booked myself into one of their rooms and gave up on my B&B as a bad job.
Luckily the hotel was fine and Barry and I celebrated our salvation from the B&Bs of Dingwall by tackling the hotel's beer and whisky selection. And if you sense a theme occurring whenever Barry and I get together, then you're damn right; after months of sitting alone in pubs, respectfully sipping solitary pints, the gloves are well and truly off.