21. Noelle weaves her web

Balnakeil was built in the 50s to serve as an early warning station in the event of a nuclear attack. It consisted of 20 or so modest huts; soldiers’ barracks, each with its own small water tower. The military abandoned it in 1964. There was no attack, but it was at risk of destruction until a community of artists moved in and settled there. The artists survived by selling artefacts to visitors who sometimes came by the coachload. So it became a post-Cold War craft village.

I wanted to tell Rupa about my groundless fear of the dark, damp hole the previous day. Rupa was covering for the artist Ishbel McDonald. I found her place but there was nobody home. So I popped next door to a hut with reflective mosaic tiles stuck like crazy paving on the walls. There was an older lady spinning yarn. I wandered in. It was her front room not an open studio. And although I’d rudely interrupted her at work, and intruded into her space, she smiled kindly and beckoned me in.

I’d stumbled in on the past. Her name was Noelle Bosa. She was like a character from an old fairy tale: weaving her magic, turning loose strands into rugs and jumpers on a wonderful old wooden loom. We had a nice long chat. She’d settled there years ago, ‘up from England’. My English accent was the first she’d heard in some time. After a while I thought I’d better let her get on with her work. I looked back after closing the front door. Her was head bent low; she was totally engrossed in her work, a benign queen spider spinning her web. I envied her calm, simple life. But I was sure she’d experienced a good few interesting twists and turns in her younger days.

There was still no sign of Rupa. But a young woman was looking after the hut. She showed me around. Ishbel’s work was strong and expressive. I loved an original of crashing surf, a seabird gliding elegantly just above the waves almost disappearing in the swell. You could feel the ocean spray against your skin. I resisted the temptation to dive in and buy it. Instead I dipped in my pocket and bought the postcard version for £2.50.

That evening I headed back down to the Sango Oasis with Colin, a cyclist I’d met that morning at breakfast. We’d had a good long chat comparing stories and sharing travel tips. He was also heading to Cape Wrath, on a break from work and writing up his trip for simonseeks.com, a travel review website. He was earnest and thoughtful; good company – younger, fitter and smarter than me.

On the way back, I stopped off to get web access in a tiny self-contained room in someone’s house. I felt like I was intruding for the second time that day. I popped my money in the slot and started writing about the day before I forgot the nitty gritty details.

When I left it was after 11pm but still quite light. I felt exuberant. It’d been another great day. Perhaps simple pleasures don’t make a great story: but the beach was special and unexpected, the walk was bracing, life-affirming even, and Balnakeil was truly inspiring. The next day, Colin and I were going to try and get over to Cape Wrath again. The wind would decide whether we’d make it or not.


Cape Wrath, 21/24

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20. A shelter from the storm

My plan to get out to Cape Wrath the following morning was scuppered due to high winds. You had to walk or hitch to a ferry then hop on a minibus to get out there. If you were a hardened cyclist you could go the long way round, adding another 20 miles or so to your journey. There was another major hurdle too. Naturally, a chunk of land at the far north west of the mainland Britain has strategic importance. So the Ministry of Defence own and use it to play war games: flying fast and low to test its latest military hardware. And this limits access at certain times of the year. So I’d started my trip at a nuclear power station, and aimed to finish up at a firing range.

I wasn’t that bothered. I loved the remoteness of Durness, and had a whole extra day to explore the local area. Mary Anne suggested a circular walk: out to the nearest headland, then loop back through the artistic community at Balnakeil. This appealed to me. It sounded really interesting, and I could buy Rupa a drink to say thank you for the ride the previous day.

I set off. There was a beautiful white sandy beach less than half a mile from the hostel. It had clear blue water and rocks scattered tastefully, like a conceptual piece of art. I had it all to myself. It wasn’t cold; it was a bright sunny day. It was just violently windy and the sand whipped up into my eyes. Still, from what I could see, it was a truly world-class beach, just in the wrong part of the world to attract any tourists. I felt absurdly happy. I’d discovered a Highland oasis: a special place unpolluted by deck chairs, stripy windbreaks, and the whiff of overcooked onions from dodgy burger bars.

I continued my walk up the road, before veering off to get to the highest point of the headland. Here I hunkered down into a convenient lookout hole for shelter. I had an uplifting view, enhanced by the great drama of the gale-force winds swirling around my head. It was like witnessing a scene painted by Van Gogh in his later, madder years. I was glad of that hollow. I snuggled down into it like a little lost lamb. Soon after, I peeked over the edge and shot a quick video on my phone of the majestic panorama surrounding me. I shot it upside down then deleted it by accident. No mini movie clip would’ve done it justice anyway.

I headed back down crouched on all fours: impersonating a rugged mountain goat to stop myself being blown over the cliffs. I felt like a reluctant kite, unwilling to take flight, safer on the ground. This was early July, summertime, when the living was supposed to be easy. I was at the mercy of the elements and found myself spouting, ‘Blow winds, rage and crack…’ King Lear sort of said that. And apart from Shakespeare, I was still all alone. Eventually I made it off the headland. I stood upright and walked somewhat light-headed down into Balnakeil.


Cape Wrath, 20/24

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19. There’s a nice place on the edge of town

There were rocks in the dorm. Lots of them, all shapes and sizes in a messy corner occupied by two young Geology students: one ginger, the other one not. We were in an area of special scientific interest, a Geo Park no less. It was of special interest to me too as John Lennon spent childhood holidays here. And his happy memories had filtered through into one of my favourite Beatles’ songs, In My Life. I know that, first because my good friend Peter Mac told me before I set off. And second, as there was a small, humble Lennon memorial up on a hill, right by the community centre. It was wonderfully understated and quintessentially British.

I had checked into the hostel at Durness, the most north western inhabited village on the mainland. And for once I’d booked in advance. It was very remote and there were not too many alternatives. I liked the fact that the name Durness was a pure edited version of my starting point, Dungeness. Both were very different, and at the opposite ends of the British Isles. But both were very striking and beautiful in their own rugged kind of way.

The hostel was a basic rural outpost, hugging windswept cliffs overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean. It was simply two corrugated iron huts: one red, and one blue. The reception, kitchen and lounge were in one hut, the dorms in the other. The manager was Mary Anne, a refugee from Islington. She had rosy cheeks and made the cold iron huts feel homely and warm. You had a sense of past times here. Travellers finding shelter from the howling winds by a cosy fire: listening to tales of adventure, drinking lashings of cocoa; its sweet aroma just about covering the smell of sweaty, soiled socks.

I wandered out after checking in: looking for food, hoping for a stale pie or a portion of chips. It was a bit of a walk into Durness proper, and it started raining. But I could see a light up ahead and thought a store might be open. There was, but further up the road was another light. I was intrigued. It looked like it belonged to a hotel, but it turned out to be the Sango Oasis Pub.

It was full, jam-packed with drinkers in the lounge watching Uruguay play Holland on a big flat screen. They also served food in take-away cartons. No need for plates and niceties here. The locals seemed a friendly bunch, and I heard quite a few foreign accents too. It turned out the bar was right by a campsite on a cliff-edge. The site was full of caravans and sturdy tents pitched by hardy souls. Hardy souls undeterred by the gale-force winds, and the site’s proximity to a sheer drop – a good few hundred feet down to the crashing waves below. Holland beat Uruguay, which suited everyone. And I wondered what would’ve happened if England were still in the competition. This was wishful thinking, but also a relief in some ways as I wasn’t sure how popular the England team would be up here.

I walked back to the hostel. The wind was so severe by this time that it blew my iPod tunes out of synch. I was listening to Rubber Soul and it shuffled from tune to tune, entirely governed by the wind. And, at the exact point that I passed the Lennon memorial, In My Life popped up. It was the perfect end to another magical day.


Cape Wrath, 19/24

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18. My name is Rupa

It rained and the bus turned up 40 minutes late. The rain stopped when the bus arrived. After 20 minutes or so we pulled into Dounreay, my third nuclear power station of the trip. But this one was going through a decommissioning process, its own economic meltdown. It was probably the major employer in the area, and I wondered what everyone would do once the site was shut down for good. It was home time, and workers in white hard hats and bright orange jackets streamed out, got on various buses or jumped into cars. It felt strange, a radioactive hive of activity in pure and beautiful surroundings.

We were heading into Sutherland from Caithness. Like the rest of the Highlands, it had suffered greatly during the Clearances in the 18th and 19th centuries. Back then, rural landowners realised that sheep were more valuable than human beings, and thousands of croft farmers were forcibly evicted from their land. As a result, the far north west of Scotland is one of the least inhabited places in Europe. It felt independent from the rest of Scotland, let alone the UK.

Just like Thurso, Betty Hill was the end of the route, and I was the last passenger on the bus. There wasn’t a lot going on, but I wasn’t too worried, there was a shop nearby and a hotel a short way up the road. Here I wrote a hopeful sign for ‘Durness’ and whipped out my lucky book, Canterbury Tales, which had worked its magic in Workington. The drivers up here seemed friendlier than their Cumbrian counterparts; at least they looked at me with sympathy before mouthing ‘No’ with a sad shake of the head. Quite a few came up the road indicating left. I raised my hopes only to have them dashed as the cars pulled into the hotel, drivers showing me hands supping imaginary pints by way of explanation. At least that’s what I thought they were doing.

Time ticked by until a young woman in a nice new car gave me some sound advice: ‘Change your sign from Durness,’ she said, ‘it’s too far away. Get a ride to the next village, and work your way across in stages.’ I thanked her and wrote out a new sign. So there I was, outside the Betty Hill Public Toilets, with a handheld sign, bearing the legend, ‘TONGUE PLEASE’. I smiled; the Betty Hill Hotel might as well’ve been the Benny Hill Hotel. But it worked. Within minutes a car pulled over, a small blue one stuffed full of shopping, blankets and a friendly looking Collie in the passenger seat.

‘Are you OK with the dog?’ the driver asked through a wound down window. ‘Oh yes,’ I said, and how generous I thought, when so many others would’ve justifiably passed me by. We introduced ourselves. Her name was Rupacheeta, Rupa for short. It was her Buddhist name, and she taught Geography and Gaelic in Inverness. She was on her way to Balnakeil, an artists’ community just outside of Durness. She was going there to cover for her friend, Ishbel Macdonald, a local artist.

Rupa was born in Oban, and was an artist/sculptor by trade. She’d spent 20 years down in London working in design-related jobs. The silent majesty of the North West eventually lured her back, but she found herself teaching in Inverness where there was more work. She missed this side of the Highlands and found it strange ‘living out east’.

She could take me all the way to the Youth Hostel in Durness. I felt high. She was good company, and the scenes unfolding outside were dramatic and heart wrenching. Up, down and all around we drove, sometimes on little more than dirt tracks: the Atlantic Ocean on one side, lochs and peaks on the other. It had the awe-inspiring beauty of the Lakes without the crowds. There were plenty of sheep, but no people.

As she drove to Durness, Rupa talked about the Clearances and told me she could show me something that very few people had seen. We pulled over by the side of the road near an inlet surrounded by bracken, with distant waterfalls shooting down steep sharp rocks. There was a hole, a small dark black hole. Maybe a hiding place for crofters during the Clearances. ‘Have you got a torch?’ she asked. ‘No’, I lied… I really didn’t want to go down the hole. We were in the middle of nowhere. We’d only just met. I really liked Rupa, we had bonded straight away, but now I felt nervous. What if she roamed the Highlands looking for waifs and strays? Then lured them here, before bashing them over the head, and throwing them down this dark damp hole to rot for all eternity.

As these thoughts raced through my mind, Rupa went back to her car to look for a torch. What if it were all to end here? I didn’t know how to play this. I’d watched too many episodes of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected as a teenager. It scared me then and I felt nervous now. It was a small hole. It would be claustrophobic even if she didn’t intend to kill me. If she did, no one would find me for years. My children would grow up wondering what happened to Daddy and why he’d deserted them.

Rupa didn’t have a torch. We moved on. I felt guilty at repaying her kindness with paranoia. We arrived in Durness in the early evening and found the hostel. The 45-mile trip was over far too soon, we’d got on really well and she hadn’t killed me.


Cape Wrath, 18/24

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17. Shore leave

The coach set off from Inverness and passed Acorn Pets who proudly announced, ‘We have baby bunnies.’ I desperately wanted one, but fought off the urge to ask the driver to stop and remained seated. I was heading to Thurso, spitting distance from John O’Groats. But on arrival, I’d be heading west instead of east, over to Durness, my last stop before Cape Wrath.

We hugged the North Sea coast for most of the trip, and soon I spotted two large cruise ships in a bay. They looked out of place; lost like beached whales washed in with the tide, confused and unable to find their way back out to sea.

We stopped shortly after and a few elderly cruisers climbed on board. They had set off from Tilbury Docks in London, and were heading around the British Isles before ending up in Southampton. Today they were on shore leave and were taking a trip up to Dunrobin Castle. They were a jolly bunch, full of joy, and excited to be on land. But their mood was not reflected in their dull, sensible clothing. It was standard pensioner apparel. They all had plenty of disposable income. They wouldn’t be gallivanting around Britain on a cruise otherwise. But they were splashing out on experience rather than fashion. A wise move, as you can’t take a pair of Day-Glo hot pants when you go.

I wasn’t jealous: my own personal pension will pay around £300 per month – although past poor performance is no guarantee against future lack of returns. I very much look forward to working in B&Q well into my 70s, and soiling myself in the plant aisle.

When we pulled into Dornoch, I noticed a sign that simply read:

TOILETS
DOCTOR
MUSEUM
ABBATOIR

It was good to see the museum had a higher status than the abbatoir. And fair play to Dornoch, on a road trip, there isn’t anything more important than a public convenience. Another roadside sign bore the legend, ‘Haste Ye Back,’ I’d see this a lot and promised I would. I was only on day two of the tartan leg of my trip but I’d already fallen in love with the Highlands.

The happy old cruisers limped off at Dunrobin. The coach became quieter apart from a token sulky teenager, whose tinny earphone music disturbed the post-pensioner day-trip calm. He was wearing a red top with the collar pulled up over his mouth. He was young and grumpy, not old and happy. But like the greyhairs, his mood was in vivid contrast to his clothing. I stopped thinking about fashion and drank in the views instead.

When we pulled in to Thurso I was the last passenger, which felt ominous. On the map it looked straightforward enough. A quick romp across the top of Scotland; taking in scenic views as I made my way west to Durness. From memory it didn’t look that far on my Michelin map. The train station was just up the road so I thought I’d try there first.

A train was just pulling into the station. Unfortunately it was heading straight back down south. No train went west from here; it wasn‘t the type of terrain that suited rail. There was too much zig-zagging, no flat plains, and lots of steep gradients. So I turned back and spoke to the first person I came across. A wise-looking white-haired old man with two slobbering dogs, one lovingly licking his face. I asked him about heading west. There was a bus, he told me, but it only went as far as Betty Hill. I could hitch cross-country from there. Or I could take a  train heading south west to Lairg, then catch a bus back up to Durness.

I chose the road and once again felt kinship with Kerouac. On the edge of the void, my spirit yearning for wild adventure, ready for anything: hemmed in by mountains and the sea, wind blowing through my hair as I sang ancient sea shanties, laughing in the face of adversity.

But first, I needed a nice cup of strong tea and a toasted teacake. The bus didn’t go for a couple of hours, its destination – Betty Hill Public Toilets. O the glamour of the road.


Cape Wrath 17/24

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16. North by north east

I caught a train from Carlisle to Glasgow. And once again, I hopped on the local service that was cheaper and more interesting than the slick fast link. Soon the station signs changed to Scot Rail and the accents became stronger. Hadrian’s Wall was the border and is impressive still. England straddling it: a fading beautiful whore, clinging on for dear life, and just about sustaining its seductive grip.

A bargain was to be had at Glasgow coach station: £35 for three days’ travel over a five-day period. I pounced on this budget-friendly deal. And I was directed to the right ‘Stance’: you see in Glasgow, even the bus stops have attitude. I settled in my seat. It wasn’t busy at all, so there was plenty of room to watch the world go by. We were heading north east to Perth then up to Inverness.

When we pulled into Inverness it was cloudy and chilly. There was a hostel nearby which looked scruffy and smelled of stale piss: a convenient doorway too close to the bus station. It was full but a note on the door gave details of a sister-hostel. That was pretty rank too. The deskman was Dutch and had an air of debauchery about him. I wondered how long he’d been here. Was he just passing through, got waylaid by a local girl or lad then ran out of money? He only had double beds spare and was reluctant to book me one. He was saving them for couples, not a sad loner. A group of younger Asian lads had just arrived before me, there was a spare bed in their room but they didn’t want to share according to my man. Instead he pointed me in the direction of another hostel that turned out to be larger, cleaner and much friendlier.

The young guy on the front desk, Ahmed, had an air of quiet authority about him. He was brisk, efficient and pleasant too. I booked in. It was time for food so I went to Morrisons. My plan was to buy something wholesome and cheap, like smoked mackerel and couscous. Then I passed the Rotisserie. It was late and the store was about to close. It was bargain time so I bought a whole roast chicken for £2. I started walking back to the hostel. But I was so hungry I started ripping off its over-cooked limbs and made best friends with a scrounging seagull.

I threw it a leg, expecting it to gently lick and nibble the few strands of flesh left on the bone. But this was a Highland Seagull. There was no messing up here where food was scarce. This was not Brighton. It was too cold for ice cream cones, even in the summertime. It swallowed the leg bone whole. I was impressed and also relieved as it stopped following me. Later I realised that my new friend might well have choked on my leftovers.

At night there was entertainment laid on for free. The hostel’s canteen window overlooked the High Street, right by MacDonald’s. Things grew louder as the night wore on. A multicultural group near me were having an earnest discussion, and completely ignored the sounds of a comedy scuffle in the street below. Two large drunk men, with one screaming woman standing between them, were throwing punches at each other, none connected. No one outside took a blind bit of notice; this was usual, everyone was more interested in buying a burger before McD’s shut up for the night. I grew bored. So I bid my farewells to the earnest group, who still showed no interest in the rubbish fight outside, and went to bed.


Cape Wrath 16/24

 

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15. After the flood

The next day I got up early and walked along the river to Cockermouth. I saw the damage caused by the flash floods that swamped the town the previous November. There was a temporary bridge strewn with defiant decorations. Kids’ drawings in shop windows showing small stick people stuck indoors. I passed a pub with a flood marker. It was over two metres high, slightly taller than me.

In Main Street, I saw a fading ad for Fletcher’s Fearless Clothing painted on the side of a building. I love brick wall advertising. It harks back to slower days. A skilled sign writer would’ve taken a couple of weeks to give Mr Fletcher his fearless ad. And I’m guessing it’d been there for a good 50 years. It had a sense of permanence; it was part of the fabric of the town. Another ad made me smile. This time a poster for a local festival, Cock Rock, which included Sham 69 in the line-up.

I didn’t hang around for long, and hopped on a bus going back to Workington. I was the first passenger of the day. The driver didn’t have any change. But he waited patiently while I popped over the road to the newsagents to get some. I wondered if this ever happened in Cockfosters at rush hour. They say people are friendlier up north, maybe that’s true, because they simply have more time.

We rattled out of town through twisting country lanes before winding into Workington. But there was no time to stay. I was heading back up to Carlisle. There I’d catch a coach to Glasgow, before a switch and a ride right up to Inverness. The Highlands were calling. I was getting closer to Cape Wrath, and just the name itself was enough for me to go all tingly down below.


Cape Wrath, 15/24

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