Today never really got going, mainly because the schizophrenic Scottish weather decided to rain on my parade. If there's one thing that I'm tiring of, it's trying to cross exposed places like the Pentland Hills when the rain is driving, the wind is howling and the summer months feel a long, long way away.
In weather like this, I can't help thinking of a website I stumbled across back in the planning stages of this walk. It was a short but very useful collection of tips by a guy who'd walked the End-to-End some years ago, and one of the things I remember him saying was that there are times when you really, really have to want to get to John o'Groats. If you don't have a genuine desire to finish the walk, then you'll never get there. Just wanting to walk isn't enough; you have to be driven.
I totally agree. On days like today finishing this damn walk is all I can think about, and if a wee Scottish faerie popped up out of the bog and granted me a wish, the words 'take me home' would be hard to resist. But I somehow manage to find the strength to keep on plodding, because it's too late in the day to give up now, and with the end in sight it's a lot easier to keep on walking than it was back in Cornwall. But when the skies are dark and the sound of squelching is my only companion, I think of that website and I wonder why it didn't put me off in the first place.
Today I headed north from West Linton, passing the Gordon Arms on the way to the Roman road to Carlops, from where a good quality path leads over the top of the Pentland Hills. Of course, the weather gods waited for me to reach the very top of the Pentlands before chucking buckets of cold water onto my head, and even though I've been through this plenty of times, for some reason I still fell for the oldest trick in the book. One thing you can't assume with rain is that it will simply go away, and telling yourself that it'll be all right and that you don't really need to bother with proper wet weather gear is a stupid thing to do.
I don't know why I didn't put on my waterproof trousers until my tracksuit bottoms were already drenched, and I have no idea why I waited until the insides of my boots were wet before donning my gaiters, but that's precisely what I did and by the time I hit the bitumen in Balerno I was soaked through. The one good thing to come out of the whole sodden episode was that I now know not to trust my boots, as the Gore-Tex lining in the left sole has obviously worn out; interestingly, my left boot has no grip on the front half either, and it's only a matter of time before I'm forced to buy a new pair. I'm hanging on for as long as I can, though; the thought of having to break in another pair of boots makes my feet ache in anticipation.
So apart from learning that sheltering under a tree is a bad idea – the midges have already thought of that one, I'm afraid – I did little except look at the ground, turn over the map at the right place, wince at the streams of water dribbling down my neck and stick to the path over the hills, through Balerno and onto the Water of Leith cycle route. And then, after 18.5 miles of trying not to think about warm fluffy towels and steaming log fires, I finally arrived in Edinburgh.
Despite booking myself into a hostel the size of a small planet, I'm sure I'm the only English-speaking person in the entire place; either that, or everyone else from round these parts is equally stunned into silence by the amazing clash of Spanish, Japanese, Dutch and German that graces the corridors. I like this kind of cosmopolitanism – it's something you hardly ever find outside of large cities – but after two months of meeting mainly local people, it's freaking me out a bit.
But Edinburgh has freaked me out anyway. Since I arrived I've been surrounded by 24-hour shops, homeless people, theatres, junk food, black cabs, cinemas, traffic, Thai restaurants, ATMs, crowds, foreign languages, green and red men, tourist shops, junkies, office blocks and all the other delicious trappings of city life. I can't believe how stylish everyone looks, if you don't count the worryingly large number of tourists sporting ill-advised shorts and chunky camcorders; the countryside might throw up the odd skateboarding dude in baggy jeans, and I've even spotted a couple of goths slouching through the streets of rural England, but it's in the cities that people's fashion sense gets fed and watered properly, and all of a sudden I'm surrounded by designer labels, smoky sunglasses, little backpacks, chiselled flares and the kind of petite summer tops that would make even an Augustinian monk ogle. Even though I've just washed and dried my entire portable wardrobe, I feel extremely aware that I'm living out of a backpack, and I haven't felt that once on this trip. Perhaps that's because I haven't walked into another city of this size; Bath, Gloucester, Worcester, Taunton and Penzance aren't really in the same league as Edinburgh.
Even if you ignore the cosmopolitan attractions of Edinburgh's streets, the historical home of Scotland's kings is the most incredible place. I've never been here before – at least, if I have, I was too young to remember – and the moment I arrived at the hostel the skies cleared and the sun came out. So it was under perfect blue skies that I discovered Edinburgh Castle.
Wow. From West Princes Street Gardens the city looks like the lid of a shortbread tin, and the castle perches there on its dominating massif, a picture postcard of a building that stands proud like a chiselled hybrid of castle and stately home. I arrived too late to go inside, but I didn't need to; I only had a few hours to explore the city and it more than made up for the irritations of the day's walk, sitting there in the park, gazing up at the turreted walls and the sheer bulk of the mountain on which it stands. I'd been in two minds about whether to head into the city centre in the first place – the more logical walking route would have been to stay outside the western city limits, ready for tomorrow's walk west along the Union Canal – but the city skyline was easily worth the extra miles.
I must come back here; a few hours at the end of a long day's squelching simply isn't enough for a city like Edinburgh.