24. The last post

I left early after staying out late. The coach was leaving at 6.30am. I was the first one there but the last one on. I didn’t have the right ticket. It was the wrong coach company and the next one wasn’t due for another hour or so. The driver and his supervisor had a chat. We’d joked, I’d meekly accepted my fate, and they eventually took pity on me and let me on. The other two passengers didn’t seem to mind too much.

When we stopped at Glasgow I nipped out for a ‘comfort break’, and when I came back a big handsome Spanish man was sat in the seat next to me. His name was Nick and he was Greek. He apologised as, being tall too, he understood the benefit of having two seats to spread yourself out on.

The driver, on the other hand, was a short angry man. He was receiving conflicting instructions, and the ‘fucks’ were flying as we made our way out through the city in the rain. I offered Nick a sweet and he began talking for the next eight hours or so. He was fast and furious at first, but after a while he settled into a rhythm and all was well. The journey passed quicker for it. Nick was frustrated in his job, stuck up in Scotland when his girlfriend was in London. He had a lot of energy, lots of ideas, and he shared them all with me, two or three times – at least.

When we pulled into London we marvelled at the sunshine and early evening crowds as the coach crossed Oxford Street. It was both familiar and wildly exotic at the same time. There were girls, lots of them, in short summer skirts. You could be forgiven for thinking that it had been October that morning up in Inverness. But here it was early July, and for once the sun was doing what it was meant to do at this time of year.

Nick & I said goodbye, and I was alone and on the homeward stretch. It was just a quick nip from Victoria to Vauxhall, then back home to Kingston. On the train, I reflected on what I’d learned on my trip:

First, a happy man just walks and simply enjoys the sights, smells and sounds of his immediate surroundings, rather than contemplating the meaning of the universe before taking each and every step.

Second, when you’re lost, most people will point you in the right direction, even if they’re not sure that it’s actually the right direction.

Third, spontaneity is over-rated and planning is under-rated.

And finally, getting somewhere is just as interesting as arriving there.

So, I was home after being away for 10 days. Not that long really. In that time I’d skirted around nuclear power stations, said confession for the first time in over 25 years, and had shed a tear at the voices of angels. I’d marvelled at mountains, been blown away on headlands, and had been spoilt by unspoilt beaches. I’d managed to hitch in one of the most far-flung parts of the mainland. I’d drunk with thirsty, lusty, lost souls in Inverness. I may even have killed a seagull.

Yet nothing compared to getting back home and getting a big hug from my wife. Then, walking into the back room and seeing a ‘Welcome Home’ banner hung up by the kids. They were sleeping innocently upstairs: dreaming of Dad, the Great Adventurer, and, more to the point, wondering what he’d bought home for them as a present. Later I found out that Millie had hung up the banner for Charlie, as he’d spent one whole night away camping with the cubs.

And that was it, a trip that felt big at the time, but was actually quite small when I look back on it six years later. I’m going to set off again one day. I need to complete the journey up to Cape Wrath: to hit the end of the road, peer over the edge, then turn around and come straight back home again. Tick it off the list, then stay put. And sometimes, I think that’s the biggest move of all.

Cape Wrath, 24/24


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23. Man walks into a bar

It was my last night away and I had that end of term feeling. I treated myself to a nice meal, had a couple of drinks then wandered down into town. I landed up at MacCallum’s on Union Street. It was a basic sort of place, full of older tipsy ‘ladies’ preying like vultures on younger, wasted men. But there was beery good cheer here too. It was the end of a long night and the booze had kicked in. There was an atmosphere of wild abandon. Hair was let down, and wigs were slipping down.

A tall woman at the bar was the centre of attention. She sat on a stool being chatted up by a short, stocky man, who, despite standing, was still smaller than her. She glanced over, weighing me up with a professional eye, while I lined up for a drink. Maybe she was interested in me as a way out from the short man. He was making no headway at all and had started to get agitated and talk about politics. But I had no time for this. I was too busy picking up broken glass from the floor, and making a neat pile for the barman. He thanked me, but I got the impression that breakages were a regular occurrence here, and no one paid them any undue attention.

I got my drink, took a seat, happy to just look on and take it all in. In the corner, a man played an urgent, bluesy machine-gun guitar and fired off popular songs. Some people sang, some danced, and some wandered around aimlessly with big smiles on sunken, drunken, red rose faces. Men in black flooded in from the street and the energy level cranked up a few notches. I wasn’t sure if they were bouncers just come off shift or funeral directors out on a team jolly. The men danced wildly and the girls joined in. One man sat next to me and shouted by way of explanation, ‘Stag do… mine!’ Then, as quickly as they’d poured in, they drained away, and things wound down. The singer had sung his last song and started packing up. It was time to move on.

I wanted one more drink in one more bar. There was a band covering 80’s classics in a raucous, not so respectful, manner. There was a birthday party and an attractive girl in her mid-twenties was having a big night out surrounded by her friends. She was at the hub of her own social whirl, not so calm at the heart of the storm. Everyone was drawn towards her. She looked fun, open hearted and gregarious. Her boyfriend smiled. He had every right to be happy. He was average looking, had man boobs, and a beer belly. How had they had come to be a couple? I wondered if they would still be together in a city with a larger gene pool.

I sat out on the edge again, an observer rather than a reveller. I wrote hastily scribbled notes, like Jack London in a rickety old bar in a gold rush town – or at least that’s how I romanticised it afterwards. A few tables away sat three fresh-faced boys in specs. You could tell they wanted to join in, but just couldn’t bring themselves to get up and get down on the dance floor. It was safer up here on the sidelines, so they discussed their maths homework instead. Suddenly, two jumped up to dance leaving one at the table alone. He put on a brave face. Meanwhile his friends danced to the band, closer to the action, but still not quite at the heart of it all.

Did the boy left behind silently seethe and berate himself for not having more spunk? Or, was he angry with his friends for breaking some unspoken code by joining in, having fun, and abandoning him? Or was he just fine with only his drink for company.

I would never know. It was time for bed, so I could head back home early tomorrow morning. As last days go, it had everything: the romance of the road, a sun-kissed evening, good food, beery joy, then finally, a heavy metal cover version of Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’. What more could I ask for?

Cape Wrath 23/24

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22. The magic bus

I didn’t make it in the end. I failed to reach my destination. Cape Wrath was a windstrewn ferry too far; for the second day running there were no crossings. I had to give up and go home. I had run out of time and money. But, as Dylan nasally intoned, ‘there’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.’ I wish I knew what he meant by that, but I get the sentiment all the same. And I wasn’t that downhearted as it meant I’d have to come up again one day.

It was a long way home. I started by heading back down to Inverness on the Bike Bus, which snaked and skirted its way south east via Ullapool. There were only three of us at first, including the driver, plus a mobile bike shed clamped precariously on the back of the bus. It would stop en route for any cyclist needing a ride. This would hopefully include Colin who’d set off earlier in the day to see how far he could get down the road. Holly was the only other passenger at first. We’d met earlier that day, as she’d also tried to get over to Cape Wrath.

We got on well and were in good spirits, for truly we were on a magic bus. It was without doubt one of the highlights of my trip. Every bend would yield another ‘Ooh!’ or ‘Aah!’ and even the odd ‘Mmm!’ The purity and splendour unfolding before our eyes bordered on unbelievable. This beat IMAX: stunning views in motion, bigger than 70mm. We were on a roller coaster ride through the Highlands but no one was strapped in.

Occasionally we’d stop to pick up a passenger, often randomly not at official stops. And at one of these random pick-ups, Colin hopped on, exhausted but smiling, and we set off back out of a narrow inlet, the same way he’d just cycled in. Then we headed up into the hills again. More ‘Oohs!’ and ‘Aahs!’ followed at every turn, and after a brief break at Ullapool, we said goodbye to Holly.

We pulled into Inverness on a golden evening. And even though I’d only been there a few days earlier, I saw it in a completely different light. Sunshine always alters my perception and influences my feelings about a place. And late afternoon is my favourite time of day; it makes everything look like an Edward Hopper painting. It also helped that Colin had recommended a hostel in a nice part of town, just up from the castle. This time I would miss the fights outside McDonalds. I could cope with that.

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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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