All Points North Day Five – 18 August 2017

Kirkwall Dash

I was awake by 6.00 am. I laid in bed trying to get a bit more rest before giving up and getting my bags ready for the off. I went through to Breakfast at 7.30. It was just me and Gordon, the B&B owner. Gordon is a lovely man and a marvellous host but he has a funny idea of a continental breakfast. I guess that here in John O’Groats is about as far from the continent as one can get in the mainland U.K, so that might be to be expected. So it was that I was soon polishing off my breakfast of Cheerios, yoghurt (with some fruit to be fair) and white toast.

If my bum didn’t want to get on to the saddle the previous morning, then today was even worse. It wasn’t helped by knowing that I would be having a stop start morning on and off the saddle. At least the first part of the day was easy. I gingerly swung my leg over the bar and climbed aboard. All I had to do was point the bike northwards, get it moving a bit, and then allow the gradual slope down to the coast to glide me to the harbour.

I got my ferry ticket and joined the queue waiting to board. There wasn’t long to wait but there were a lot of people on board the 8.45 am sailing. They were mostly coach groups who were clearly being passed over by their regular coach tour drivers into the hands of some Orkney drivers for the day instead.

Once aboard, the ferry trip across the Pentland Firth was quite straightforward. It was a calm morning and though there was some swell in the very middle of the crossing, it passed uneventfully. Sadly there was no sign of any sealife but it was lovely to be on the open water and watch the Orkney islands coming into view.  I also enjoyed chatting to some ladies looking forward to their visit to the Islands.

We came into the harbour at Burwick and quickly disembarked. Although I was one of the first off I parked myself up at the waiting room and made use of the facilities. I waited until all of the other passengers had been ushered onto the waiting coaches and had headed off away from the harbour. There was, after all, no point in getting myself in front and then having a line of coaches waiting to get past me. Better to let them go and then have the road to myself.

The original plan for today was that I would have the whole day to spend ambling around the islands before meeting my other half in Kirkwall at the end of the day. She was working at the Ness of Brodgar excavations however due to a change in schedule earlier in the week they now had the day off. Instead the plan was that I would just meet her in Kirkwall; although there was some confusion (entirely on my part) as to when.

Welcome to Orkney

There was no confusion as to the first part of the ride though. First up was the cycle across South Ronaldsay towards the Orkney mainland. After passing the welcome to Orkney sign the road starts to climb gently along some rolling hills leading upwards towards a viewpoint over the islands. Just as I was coming to the top of the hill my phone rang. Stopping to answer it was my other half asking how much longer I was going to be as she was waiting for me in Kirkwall. Therefore the ride was now a case of getting a wiggle on and making this as quick a dash as possible into town.

This way to Kirkwall

I set off at a better pace and made the next mile or two into St Margarets Hope on the north side of South Ronaldsay. I took a detour from the main road and dropped down into the village. We have friends living here and this is where my partner had been staying during her two weeks here. We’d be coming back here later on today before heading for the ferry back to Aberdeen. I therefore had the opportunity to drop off anything that I wouldn’t be needing for the rest of day. I was soon heading back on my way with only one, much lighter, pannier and without the spare tyre and extra water bag I had been carrying until now.

After the briefest of turn arounds I was back on the bike. The first thing I noticed was when picking it up to turn it back to face the road; I could suddenly lift it with almost no effort. Getting back into the saddle things felt even better. I flew up the short slope out of St Margaret’s Hope and re-joined the main road at flying speed.

I was very quickly upon the first of the four Churchill Barriers. The barriers were built during World War II in order to protect Scapa Flow from enemy ships. The barriers were not actually finished before the end of the war and now serve as causeways linking the southern islands to the mainland. They are named, rather imaginatively, Barriers 1 – 4; numbered from North to South.

View across Barrier Three

Barrier 4 leads from South Ronaldsay to Burray. Whereas the other barriers still cross open waters, the eastern side of Barrier 4 has become a beach meaning the this barrier has a different feel to the others. Burray village is a small hamlet of a handful of houses nestled against a bay on the South side of the island. The slightest of rises leads you to a view over a small bay that feels like, but is not, another of the barriers. Instead after that false start another rise onto the Northern slopes of Burray leads to a view down over Barrier 3 and onto the tiny island of Glimps Holm.

Barrier 3 is the first of the proper causeways; the road surface sits on top of a pile of concrete blocks. To the side of the causeway the remains of some Block Ships were visible above the water line. These were part of an earlier; mostly WWI attempt to protect the naval base of Scapa Flow using scuttled ships to prevent access. By the time of WWII they were already falling apart and an invading German U Boat managed to sneak its way into the flow and sank the HMS Royal Oak with the loss of 834 men. It was this that led to the building of the barriers.

Block Ships

Glimps Holm and the next island, Lambs Holm are tiny; they are linked by Barrier 2 and I flew over them in no time. For anyone with time to spare, Lambs Holm is home to the famous Italian PoW Chapel. Italian Prisoners of War were (probably illegally) used to build the barriers and whilst doing so they were allowed to build their own chapel here. I’ve visited on a previous trip to Orkney. The photo below is from that trip. Today I was flying past, but the chapel is certainly one of Orkney’s must see sights.

The Italian Chapel in 2013

From Lambs Holm, Barrier Number 1 brought me onto the Orkney mainland. In order to get to Kirkwall as quickly as possible I ignored the NCN1 signs turning off to the right and stayed instead on the A961 to follow the most direct route. The road was not busy and, unlike many of the A roads of the previous four days, this is a decent and wide road so any passing vehicles did have plenty of space to pass me.

Barrier Number Two

The dual villages of Holm and St Marys (the names seem to be interchangeable) are another set of pretty houses set against a small fishing harbour. At the end of the village by the said harbour the road swings North and a long, continual climb begins. The hill is not sharp and, with so much weight removed from the bike, I was still flying and loving the ride. However there is undoubtedly a sadist working for the Highways department here. At the top of the slope a ‘Blind Summit’ warning sign indicates that you have hit the top of the hill. However within 50 yards of reaching the ‘summit’ the hill starts to climb again before another Blind Summit sign lulls you again into thinking that the climb is done.

In all I counted four of the blind fake summits before hitting the eventual top of the island; about 100m above sea level. At the top I also came across a couple of ‘Sheep Pigs’ in a field by the road. A curious sight these turned out to be Mangalitsa pigs; certainly pigs albeit with a wooly coat like a sheep.

Sheep Pig

Across the road from the sheep pigs I also spotted another amazing wildlife sight. I had by now ridden roughly 300 miles across the Scottish Highlands and had not seen a single Highland Cow anywhere. I was beginning to doubt their existence. Finally now, on the Orkney Islands and just 5 miles from my destination I found some in a field opposite the pigs. Although I was in a hurry I had to stop to say hello to both sets of animals.

Highland Coos (not in the Highlands)

Looking ahead I could very shortly get my glimpse of Kirkwall and the end of my ride. I got my head down and pedalled hard down the hill into the town. I shot in and around the edge heading for the ferry terminal. The ferry leaves from a new pier on the outskirts of the town. I was aware of this but was still a little surprised at just how far out of the centre it is. Having finally got there I locked my bike up by the terminal building; picked up my remaining kit, and started the brisk walk back into the town where I eventually found my other half tapping her feet and looking at her watch. And so it was that my ride was done.

View over Kirkwall

What a fantastic adventure. It might not be a properly documented route unlike my previous trips; but this was still a great journey and one I can heartily recommend.

The End of the Ride – Kirkwall Ferry Terminal

Day Five Stats:

Overall Stats:

  • Distance: 304.39 Miles
  • Ride Time: 24 Hours, 38 minutes and 15 seconds
  • Ascent: 12,381 feet


Upon meeting up in Kirkwall we headed to the excellent Old Library where we had some lunch – a truly fantastic posh Fish Finger Sandwich (by far the best food of the trip) and a celebratory glass of Irn Bru.

Ride Complete! Irn Bru at the Old Library

After that, still in my cycling gear, we got a bus to Stromness; Orkney’s second biggest town at the western side of the mainland and which I’d not visited on my previous trip here.  As we headed over, the heavens started to open with rain of almost biblical proportions. It eased slightly, to being merely torrential by the time we arrived at the end of the bus ride. In Stromness we had a quick walk through town visiting the lovely Pier Arts Centre gallery to see an exhibition related to the excavations at the Ness of Brodgar. With the rain still coming down we headed to get the bus back. The bus terminal is next to the Stromness Ferry Port. We sat in the ferry terminal building for a few minutes; however the Ferry back to Scrabster (by Thurso) was leaving and as it did so we got kicked out of the warm and dry to wait for the bus outdoors. Fortunately we didn’t have too long to wait and were soon back on the move.

Stromness Harbour

The rain was back to biblical again. I was glad now that today’s ride had been cut short. I would not have much fancied cycling in this. Especially as my original plans would have brought me to this end of the island and some of the roads were starting to become impassably flooded. On the bus to Stromness we had met some of the other half’s work colleagues. They were heading the island of Hoy to hike across to an isolated bothy on that remote island. We didn’t fancy much of the prospect of the trek across the island in that weather.

We stayed on the bus at Kirkwall as it carried on back to St Margaret’s Hope and so we were now shooting back along the way that I had come this morning. Hello again Coos; hello again Sheep Pigs. Over the barriers, in numerical order this time; 1, 2, 3 and 4 and back onto South Ronaldsay.  We got off the bus at the top of St Margret’s Hope and walked down the hill to our friends house. They were still out at the time but that gave us both a chance to shower and sort our bags for the journey home. Our friends arrived and I got to say hello to them for a couple of hours before they kindly ventured back out in the rain to take us back to the ferry terminal in their car.

The sailing back to Aberdeen was due to leave just before midnight. After a bit of a delay whilst the lovely ferry staff dealt with an aggressive customer, I was soon wheeling the bike onto the ferry to begin the homeward journey. We slept in one of the ferry’s ‘Sleeping Pods’ each; a surprisingly comfortable arrangement and before long we were disembarking in Aberdeen. The train journey home was not as simple as it should have been as useless Virgin trains decided to cancel our train (one of the only direct Aberdeen to London trains) at York. A stressful time at one of my favourite stations followed but I managed to get the bike onto the replacement train. We had to stand the rest of the way home but at least we were headed back and after a few more uneventful hours and two further trains we were back on the South Coast and home.

All Points North Day Four – 17 August 2017

There’s No Crime Here

After a restful night’s sleep, breakfast in the Bettyhill Hotel set me up nicely for the day.  Although the coffee was frankly disgusting, the breakfast itself was very good.

There were a few small clouds in the sky but it was bright and sunny and promising to be a glorious day.  I was starting to feel the effects of three full days in the saddle coupled with a Babybel, bread, and fudge diet.  I wasn’t particularly looking forward to putting my bum back into the saddle but once I was on my way I soon got back into the swing.

Bettyhill Stores

After popping into the village shop to stock up on Babybel, bread and fudge, I started off by heading back down to the harbour that I walked down to at the end of the day yesterday. I wanted to see in proper daylight the fishing canning factory and ice house.  It was also another point or two on the Strathnaver Trail to mark as having visited.  I had a quick chat with some fishermen and a couple who were camping next to their sports car by the old harbour jetty.  Everyone seemed to be enjoying the lovely morning.

Bettyhill Fish Factory
Bettyhill Harbour

Leaving the village you drop down from the hill of Betty into the valley past the Clachan Burn where an old church has been converted into the Strathnaver Museum; the people behind the Strathnaver Trail.  The museum itself is another one of the items on the trail but sadly I was too early to visit and with a long day ahead I couldn’t hang around until opening time.  I did have a wander around the graveyard to find the Farr Stone; an 8th century Pictish stone now housed in the middle of the graveyard.

After leaving Bettyhill the road starts to climb back up onto the hills of Sutherland.  I took the climb slow and steady as my legs warmed up for the day.  I knew I had a few hills ahead so there was no point in pushing things too hard too early.  Indeed the rest of Sutherland would prove to be hilly with some lovely ups and downs out of the various valleys running from the highlands into the sea.

At the top of the first hill there is a viewing point where I could stop, get a breather, and look back West at the hills behind me. It has a handy board pointing out their names.  From the viewing point there was a lovely fast ride downhill into the next valley at Armadale Bay.

Looking Back at the Hills of Sutherland

On the next hill back out of the valley I was overtaken by a couple of guys that I had seen in the Bettyhill Hotel bar the previous evening. They were heading up the hill much more easily than I and so I was happy to let them go past.  I soon met them again at the summit where I stopped at the same car park come view point as them to get my breath back and, more importantly, take in my first view of Orkney which was visible for the first time on the horizon.  I hung around long enough for the other two to set off before me.  I was relaxed with the idea that they were quicker than I, but I didn’t feel the need to be reminded.  A minute or two after them I set off back on my way; only to find that they had stopped again a few hundred yards up the road.  I rode past them and sure enough a minute or two later they shot past me again.

A First View of Orkney

More up and downs followed; through the valley at Srathy then up again before dropping past another corrugated iron church at Melvich and down over the Halladale River past the excellently named ‘Big House’.

The Old Iron Church at Melvich
Big House

At some point around here I had crossed from Sutherland into Caithness (there was a sign; but I can’t recall exactly at which point it was).  After Big House and one smaller climb the next view ahead of me included the dominating appearance of the (disused) Dounreay nuclear power plant.  I wasn’t going to be going past Dounreay itself but I did stop for a break on a bench next to a cemetery in Reay village for a quick Babybel, bread and fudge break.  The residents of the cemetery are clearly well read as the mobile library was also parked up here as well.  I wonder what they were reading?  A bit of Wilkie Collins perhaps?

A View to Dounreay
The Reading Dead

From Reay I turned off from the main road, though still following cycle route NCN1, onto a back road into Thurso.  The road should have been quite nice but, as it takes a shorter distance into Thurso when compared to the A836, it was quite heavily used.  The road is also very straight for a few long periods so a high percentage of the passing cars were travelling at some considerable speed.  Despite this I was soon on the outskirts of Thurso and dropped down into the town.  A couple of Cycling Tourist Club (of which I am a member in its current guise of ‘Cycling UK‘) ‘Winged Wheel’ badges on the older hotels in the town suggested that I was in a very popular cycling touring area!  I did consider finding a café for a fuller lunch but instead found myself by a nice bench on the sea front so opted for more of the usual food stuffs instead.  Babybel was starting to get a bit tiring by now; but the fudge is still excellent.

I stopped at a Co-op on the edge of the Thurso to stock up my water supplies for the rest of the day; I still had about half of the day’s riding ahead of me so needed to ensure I was staying hydrated

Heading East from Thurso the cycle route diverts again from the main road for a few miles.  I wish that maybe it didn’t.  The main road follows the coast and looking on the Ordnance Survey maps appears to travel quite flat and takes the more direct route to Castlehill.  The cycle route on the other hand diverts off the direct path in order to find another long drag for a couple of miles.  The day was quite warm now and I was glad of the water.  There was at least a nice enough view back over Thurso and after a couple of miles the route took a turn to the left and then dropped back down nicely into Castlehill.

I was considering abandoning the official route now and sticking to the main road.  I was going to be diverting away from NCN1 for a few miles anyway; but at the crossroads in Castlehill something made me choose to continue to follow the route 1 signs straight over rather than turn right onto the A836.  I’m glad I did.  Had I not carried on I would have missed the ruins of the Castlehill flagstone factory.  In the 19th century the area here was one of the major producers of flagstones in the country (Regent Street in London was paved with Castlehill flags).  Production has long halted but there is a lovely wild trail in and amongst the mills and factory buildings, down to the harbour built to send the finished product off around the country by ship.  I should have been continuing my progress but was entranced by the site.  The accompanying Museum and Heritage Centre was closed today, but none the less I can highly recommend taking some time to explore here.

Castlehill Flagstone Factory
Castlehill Harbour

I was soon back on the A836 and from here I turned away from cycle route 1 and onto the main road.  A short way along the road next to Dunnet Bay I first discovered one of the mildly embarrassing side effects of cycling in this area (particularly with a loaded bike).  Another cyclist was heading in the other direction, also on a well laden bike.  “Go on.  You’re almost there.  Well done”.  Almost there?  Almost where? Never mind; I’ll just carry on my way.

At the end of the bay (which wasn’t visible behind the sand dunes) at Dunnet village I left the main road again in order to head for, well, the head.  A couple of miles rising up the hill later and I was pulling into the car park at the top of the cliffs.

1 Mile from the Lighthouse

There were about half a dozen other cars parked up but within a few minutes I found myself next to the lighthouse all by myself.  With no one around to witness the scene, I set my phone onto a mini tripod and took a picture of me celebrating being the most northerly person on the British mainland.  After the disappointment of Cape Wrath I had made it properly to one of the ‘Points’ on my ‘All Points North’ ride.

Hands Up if You’re the Most Northerly Person on the UK Mainland

I had a good explore around the headland.  The lighthouse itself is off limits but higher up behind it next to some old World War Two defences there is an excellent lookout spot to get a full view of the road both behind and ahead.

Back in the saddle I glided back down the hill, cutting a corner across through the small settlement of Ham with its old pier and mill buildings, aiming to re-join the A836 a mile or two east of Dunnet village.  Just before the main road junction I checked my phone and noticed some erratic behaviour on my GPS.  Up at the head it had gone totally haywire and was showing readings all over the shop.  I don’t know what there is hiding up at Dunnets Head but I reckon that there must be some sort of strange government test facility that was interfering with the GPS!  I had to restart my phone to get it working again.

GPS Craziness at Dunnets Head

On the main road a couple of cars coming the other direction beeped their horn,s flashed their lights and waved at me.  Confused I stopped and gave my bike a once over.  I couldn’t see anything wrong.  I still had the best part of another ten miles until John O Groats and really didn’t want to start having any mechanical issues now.

The remaining miles went smoothly by.  The landscape has a few hills still but it was all quite calm riding and before I knew it I could see the end in sight.  The A836 comes to an abrupt halt where it meets the main north-south A99 road about half a mile South of the famous village centre.  Turning onto the road and heading North for the final stretch, some more people cheered and waved at me.  That’s when I realised that everyone had just assumed that I had started my ride, not from Inverness, but from Land’s End.  I was embarrassed, but glad to have realised why people had been saluting me over the last ten to fifteen miles.

I glided down into the centre of John O’Groats and up to the famous signpost.  A couple of people were already stood by the sign taking photos but again they applauded me as I got off the saddle.  Sheepishly, once the current people had taken their photos, I set up my mini tripod and took some selfies of me against the sign.  As I moved away a father with his son (somewhere about 7 years old) told the boy to congratulate me which he did very nicely.  By now I had decided that the best course of action was just to go with it so I thanked him very much, feeling only a bit of a fraud!

At John O’Groats

I wasn’t quite done for the day yet but I needed some food and  a rest so I popped into the Storehouse Café for a sandwich and a coffee.  Refreshed I started on the final push.  John O’Groats might just be the end of the road; however it is not the farthest point.  A few miles along a small side road, and winding up and down some hills that I frankly could have done without, I came to Duncansby Head.  Pulling up to the lighthouse at the end of the road I had now made my way to the most North Westerly point on the mainland, and ticked off the second ‘Point’ of my ‘All Points North’ for the day.

I spent a bit of time watching the bird life living on the cliffs and admiring the Duncansby Stacks from the hills above. The end of the day was in sight however, and I still had to wind back down and up the hills in order to find my B and B for the night.

The Stacks of Duncansby
The Climb to Duncansby Head

As I rolled into the Hamnavoe guest house the landlord, Gordon, met me. He was about to head off for a rare night out but quickly showed me to my room, telling me that I would be best off storing my bike in there. As he was about to leave the guest house I looked around and, finding something missing, asked Gordon if he had given me the keys.  “Oh there are no keys. You don’t need them. There is no crime here. Not like Inverness”.

John O’Groats Sunset

I took a long and much needed shower before walking back down to the harbour. I spent some time watching the sun set over the very north of Britain. The sunset was glorious and this was a beautiful way to end a long but rewarding day. As the sun finally dropped I made my way back, stopping en route at the Seaview Hotel. I was officially too late to order food but they kindly did me a burger and chips which I washed down with a pint of Best from the John o Groats brewery located less than 100 yards up the road. The food wasn’t great but was much needed. Having finished, I made the final short walk back to the guest house and fell almost instantly asleep.

Sunset at John O’Groats
John O’Groats Harbour

Day Four Stats: