Blimey, was today really only 11 miles long? It felt like a much longer walk, not because of the weather or the difficulty of the walking, but because of the path (or rather the lack of it). Apart from a couple of miles of pleasant walking through Brora's links course, today was entirely on the A91 and already I hate the bastard. The only problem is there's no alternative; if I want to walk to John o'Groats without dithering about with much longer and more indirect routes, I have to follow the A9 and then the A99 all the way to the end. The last few days of this walk are in danger of turning into an almighty drag.
It's awful, walking along the side of a busy A-road. Long gone are the sections with wide, grassy verges and an extra strip of tarmac along the side for cyclists; here the road is squeezed between the inland hills and the beach, with the railway line on one side and the untamed hills of the flows on the other ('flow' being the local term for 'moor', the thought of which is even less appealing than the A-road).
There are certain things you have to do if you're to survive a walk along an A-road like this. The most important one is to stick to the outside of the white line along the edge; in theory nothing is going to cross that white line, and although it's fine to wander on the road if there's no traffic, it's easier to get into a walking trance if you stick outside the traffic zone. This means you get four inches of walking space, no more and no less; the other side of the line is simply not meant for walkers.
On top of the usual dangers of walking amongst traffic, it seems that the A9 has its own unique set of rules, the first of which is to be in a vehicle rather than on foot. Others include:
When the sign says there's a speed limit of 60 mph, it's talking about the minimum speed.
Tailgating is the polite thing to do.
Don't be smiling at walkers, even if they smile at you.
Overtaking should be fun; we recommend using blind corners for maximum excitement.
The middle pedal is for wimps.
Sunglasses are mandatory.
You get extra points for forcing walkers and cyclists over the cliffs.
No, the verge is not the best place to be, unless you're particularly interested in the detritus of modern life. King of the verge is the plastic drinks bottle, especially Lucozade, which is no doubt the discerning choice of the long-distance lorry driver who's desperately trying to stay awake for the last few miles to Wick; other contenders are the local stalwart Irn-Bru, the global brands of Coca-Cola and Pepsi, and quite a few Tango bottles, but most of them are so bleached and crushed that it's difficult to see what they used to be.
The next most popular piece of rubbish along the A9 is the soggy cigarette box, the blue box of Mayfair being the favourite; I didn't see one Marlboro box, which is interesting as that's one of the most popular brands in southern England. Scattered between the bits of rubbish are the matted remains of countless furry animals, most of them unrecognisable after being plied into the tarmac; the most common piece of road kill is the rabbit, which is no surprise when you see the crowds of bunnies who leap into the ground as you walk the coastal paths. Top of the list of strange discoveries by the roadside must go to the pair of ladies' knickers that blew past my trekking poles on the approach to Helmsdale; the fact that this was one of the most exciting things to happen to me all day says a lot more about road walking that I ever can.
But some people must like it because a lot of End-to-End walkers do the whole thing exclusively on main roads. Today Barry and I met a man who was walking south along the carriageway, and it turned out he's just set off to do John o'Groats to Land's End in around a month. He's sticking to A-roads for most of his walk and he's planning to do about 25 miles a day, which sounds like an awful way to waste a month of one's life.
'Ooh, we've been avoiding roads,' said Barry when the man told us his plans. 'We've been using tracks for our walk.'
'Tracks?' said the man in obvious horror. 'Ooh no, I'm sticking to the roads. Not my scene, walking tracks.'
I guess we're all different; to me, travelling on A-roads is madness, unless you're a car, a cyclist or an underwear fetishist.
All the way along the A-road I worried about tomorrow's rest day, in case the village of Helmsdale – the location for my last rest day of all – turned out to be a dead duck. Luckily it was worth the walk, which was a relief as Barry spent most of this morning telling me just how awful he'd found Brora. It seems my accidental decision to stay out of town was a good one as Barry had a terrible time finding anywhere decent to eat; he concluded that Brora was one of the most depressing and pointless spots on his entire walk. Helmsdale, though, is another story; it's charming.
There isn't much here, but what is here is good. The Bridge Hotel is a wonderfully atmospheric spot for a drink, with its flagstone floor and cosy seating; the Heritage Centre contains an excellent museum that explains the history of the area; the harbour is a very pleasant place to wander round; there's a picturesque bridge spanning the River Helmsdale that was built by the one and only Thomas Telford; the Youth Hostel is central, even if it shuts its doors during the day and kicks everyone out until 5pm; and there are two fascinatingly awful restaurants in town that compete over the tackiest way to entice punters in for their admittedly scrumptious seafood. One restaurant used to be the haunt of Dame Barbara Cartland, who was a regular visitor to these parts and who took a lot of inspiration from the lovelorn landscapes; and the other boasts signed photographs from the likes of George Cole, Bob Hoskins and Phil Collins, which is apparently supposed to make you want to eat there. It's all very surreal.
The only downside about taking a rest day in Helmsdale was having to say goodbye to Barry as he set off alone for the next leg. I'm not sure why I planned a rest day at Helmsdale – I suppose I thought I might need one, which is pretty much spot on – but Barry didn't plan to stop here, so now I'm back on my own for the last few days to John o'Groats. It's a shame; when you're plodding along the side of an A-road, company really helps, and there's something therapeutic about flicking a communal V-sign at speeding traffic. Somehow it's just not as much fun on your own, although I should bump into Barry one more time, in John o'Groats itself. That's as good a reason to get there as any.
1 Thanks to John Thompson, who posted to my Guestbook with the following advice: 'When I did the route in 2006 I camped at Dalchalm just north of Brora. I was looking at all ways of keeping off the A9 and only walking it when there was no alternative. I left the campsite and walked north on the path till it crossed the railway line at 916067. Checking the map and looking at the way ahead I thought it feasible to drop down on to the beach and use that and the cliff edge to head further north via the coast. By doing this I was able to walk as far as a mile south of Helmsdale crossing the railway line back on to the A9 at around 019143. There was even a proper crossing point here. I have to say it turned out to be one of the best days of the trip, no other soul on the beach and only the seals for company. So it is possible to cut the road miles down a bit. Can I just add, don't be tempted to try and stick to the cliff top north of Helmsdale. There is the start of a cliff top path, but it peters out at a field edge about a mile north of the village, and the cliffs are a lot higher here than south of Helmsdale. There's no real alternative but the A9 and the Ord of Caithness.' Thanks, John – your route sounds a lot more pleasant than the long slog along the A9.