A walk of 1000 miles might start with one step, but it ends with three corking blisters. It's the tarmac; the A99 goes all the way to John o'Groats and it takes its toll. If today hadn't been today, it would have been bloody awful.
There's not much to say about the final slog into John o'Groats. This is not a pretty part of the world, and apart from the odd notable piece of coastal scenery and a ruined castle or two, it's completely unremarkable. It's flat, it's dull, it's full of midges and most visitors put their right foot down and wonder what all the fuss is about. For once I found myself looking at the cars and wishing I was in them.
This is probably quite a good journey to do by bicycle, because the lack of serious hills and the long, straight road are well suited to pedal power. There are quite a few cyclists tootling up and down the A99 and it helps to break the monotony, especially as a fair proportion of them are either starting or finishing their own End-to-End trips. There's an instant kinship along the final stretches of the A-road and people wave, shout 'well done' and give the thumbs up, which is a tonic for the soul. Anyone heading towards John o'Groats with a backpack is either finishing the End-to-End or they're lost, and anyone pedalling past in a sleek, Lycra-clad fashion statement is about to finish crossing the country in their own peculiar way.
But it's still a drab finish to the walk, and after 17 miles of uneventful and completely forgettable stomping along the tarmac, John o'Groats comes into view over the crest of Warth Hill. From that distance it looks like a collection of houses, fields and precious little else, and unfortunately these first impressions last. If it weren't for the Orkney Islands peppering the horizon, arriving in John o'Groats would be one of the biggest let-downs of the whole walk; luckily, after a week of the coastal A-road, anything is better than more walking.
It helped that my phone rang as I rounded the corner into what laughably turned out to be the main drag. 'All right Mark,' said Barry into my right ear. 'How you doing? Here, did you know there's a pavement on the other side of the road you can use?'
'Eh?' I said. 'Can you see me? Where are you?' And there, waving from the car park in front of the Seaview Hotel was Barry, and all of a sudden John o'Groats didn't seem so pointless after all.
Doing the Tourist Thing
I finally arrived at the John o'Groats Hotel at five to two and limped across the finishing line that's painted on the tarmac outside the bar. The hotel itself has closed and looks rather drab and unloved, but the bar still manages to pump out standard Scottish beer and there's a guestbook to sign while they stamp your form to show you've completed the walk. Outside there's the twin of the signpost at Land's End – they're owned and operated by the same company – so Barry and I did the honourable thing and had our pictures taken for posterity.
However, John o'Groats isn't actually the furthest point from Land's End, so to complete the full End-to-End walk you have to trek a further two miles to Duncansby Head. John o'Groats itself is little more than the harbour from where the Orkney passenger ferry departs; indeed, the name is a corruption of Jan de Groot, the name of one of three Dutch brothers who arrived in the area in 1496 with a commission from King James IV to operate the ferry between the mainland and Orkney. The price of the ferry was one groat and this spawned a name that's far more memorable than 'Duncansby Head.' But Duncansby Head is the real end of this walk, so Barry and I hit the tarmac one last time to reach the lighthouse at the opposite end of the country to Land's End.
At last this is where the real attraction of this area hits you in the face. From Duncansby Head you can ignore the run-down hotels and novelty shops of the metropolis because it's here, tucked away from the main drag, that the proper scenery of the Scottish coast kicks in. The cliffs around Duncansby are sheer, soaring and as beautiful as anything at Land's End, and sea birds perch on the steep rocks, squawking, screeching and adding distinctive grey stains to the sea stacks that dominate the view south. After endless miles of boring tarmac and flat, grey flows, John o'Groats doesn't really cut the mustard; Duncansby Head, however, most certainly does. Thankfully, the real end to the End-to-End walk is well worth the effort.
After the Party
It still hasn't sunk in that I've finished this walk. I've walked 1111 miles in 89 days, walking for 70 of those days at an average of 15.9 miles per day; I've completely worn out one pair of brand new trekking boots and broken in another pair; I've used over 50 blister plasters and got through six different pairs of socks; I've taken 1129 photographs and two video clips; I've navigated my way across 54 Ordnance Survey Explorer maps at a scale of 1:25,000; I've walked with food poisoning, sprained leg muscles, inflamed tendons, multiple blisters, whisky hangovers and suspicious friction burns; I've met four other End-to-End walkers, two going my way and two going the other; and at this stage it really doesn't feel like it's over.
I suppose it'll take a few days for the memories to sort themselves out properly. When I think of northern Scotland I think of blisters and aching feet, but when I think of Cornwall I think of lovely coastal scenery and delightful, winding lanes. If my brain now views the first section through rose-tinted spectacles, given time it'll probably do the same for the whole walk, and that's when I'll be able to look back on it all with a sense of satisfaction. As for now, my brain hasn't yet cottoned on to the fact that I won't be hitting the trail tomorrow, because there is no more trail.
It'll no doubt hit me later. If I concentrate and try not to think about my feet, I can already feel the sides of my mouth tugging. It's a good sign...