Fringe Box

Socialize

Twitter

Around the Very Top: Welcome to Caithness

Published on: 3 Jun, 2015
Updated on: 6 Jun, 2015
Around The Very Top of Scotland

Around The Very Top of Scotland

Martin Giles is cycling around the top of northern Scotland with his son Tom. This is a report on the leg from Strathy to Thurso. Find other reports in the series by searching on: “Around The Very Top”.

Note: most images can be enlarged by clicking on them.

By Martin Giles

“Ten miles of hell,” was the way our host had described the first half of our journey to Thurso this morning.

Our planned route from Strathy to Thurso. In fact, we took the back route further inland.

Our planned route from Strathy to Thurso. In fact, we took the back route further inland.

I had scoffed at the idea that this leg could be hellish but as I looked out of our bedroom window at 8.30am I began to think he might be right, after all. As forecast, it was raining steadily and the rain was only expected to get heavier.

But worse than that, the wind had backed to a strong easterly. Cycling straight into a wind driving rain into our faces would not be fun.

Route cross section.

Route cross section.

There was no option. Much as we liked our temporary home at the Strathy Inn, booked accommodation, train tickets and future plans would not wait. We had to get to Thurso today.

Carefully double wrapping our belongings to keep out rain was now an established part of our morning routine.

Carefully double wrapping our belongings to keep out rain was now an established part of our morning routine.

By now our morning routine was well established. Once up, washed and shaved it was breakfast and then re-packing our panniers.

The breakfast met the expectations set by our tasty dinners the previous evening. Worthy of special mention are Heather Craig’s home made jams. The rhubarb and ginger, always one of my favourites, was especially good.

We re-packed carefully, making sure that all contents were carefully wrapped in stout polythene bags for protection against any rain that might seep into the panniers, and descended the stairs.

Steady ladies - my neoprene knee support.

Steady ladies – my neoprene knee support.

A new part of my routine was putting on a neoprene knee support. I had had twinges in my knees last year, when cycling from Guildford to Edinburgh, especially after the hilly section between Market Harborough and Melton Mowbray.

But worryingly I had felt them again more recently and did not want them to spoil our ride so had gone online and bought a support for my right knee which was the most niggly.

My knees had felt okay after the first short leg, without the support, in the morning at Overscaig but Tom agreed that prevention was better than cure so I had worn it since. It did seem to make a difference.

Tom had already extracted the bikes from the barn so after bidding our thanks and farewells we loaded up our baggage and, after a last minute hitch while Tom retrieved a missing nut for the “GoPro” video camera Harry, his brother, had lent him, we reluctantly set off.

We were immediately into a descent but the bad news was that on the other side of the valley was a steep looking climb. Within minutes we would be facing wind, rain and gradient. What joy.

Within seconds of leaving we passed an elderly couple cycling up the hill we were descending. Like Tom he was dressed in shorts (swimming trunks might have been more practical for us all) and looked determined.

His wife, who had a slightly frightened look, tried to wave but clearly did not wish to take her hands off the handlebars too long. Afterwards I wondered if it had been a wave or part of a plea for help. I will never know but they were only yards from the inn and I have seen nothing on the news.

The flow country has little beauty in these conditions.

The flow country has little beauty in these conditions.

The next hill was quite steep and once again I had to push for a couple of hundred yards. Then we were back on top and in the by now familiar Flow Country. Its wide expanses can impress with their scale and wildness but only in better weather.

At first the rain was light enough that the rate of evaporation from my trousers almost kept up but, as predicted, it got steadily heavier. It was not long before they were thoroughly soaked.

My shirt was also wet from perspiration. Breathable jackets in my experience can never keep water from getting in and let water vapour out at the same time at the necessary rate.

Welcome to Caithness. hopefully the best was yet to come.

Welcome to Caithness. hopefully the best was yet to come.

After a few miles, on top of a bleak hill we came to the county border. “Welcome to Caithness” said the sign. Some welcome on such a day but the county could not be blamed for the unseasonal weather.

Why?

Why?

An aerial photograph at the Strathy Inn had shown a marked contrast in topography and fertility between Sutherland and Caithness but we had yet to see it.

We were also leaving Mackay Country. I could turn off the Rob Roy radar.

Our first glimpse of the decommissioned nuclear reactor at Dounreay.

Our first glimpse of the decommissioned nuclear reactor at Dounreay.

From the hillside some large buildings were visible along the coast still some miles off. I realised that they must be Dounreay, a name slightly familiar, at least, to many of us because of the atomic power station, now decommissioned, located there. Work continues on the clean-up of the site.

Tom had discovered after a couple of miles that he had left his water bottle at Strathy. He was sharing mine but at Reay, just inland from Dounreay (I wonder if there is an Oopreay?) we came across a shop. It was a typical village convenience store/paper shop.

I asked the shopkeeper for her advice on the choice of routes to Thurso. There was the main coast road and another more inland route. She said that the more inland route would be quieter.

“Aye but you won’t get the view,” said an elderly lady customer. She must have travelled to the shop in a dream, the visibility was terrible and it was certainly not the weather for standing and admiring a view.

I mentioned this, but the customer’s case for the coast road was not closed. “It’s terrible narrow on the back road” she said, as if describing a mortal danger. Perhaps she had mistaken us for two Challenger tank drivers. I did not think a narrow road would be too much of a problem, nearly all our route to date had been on narrow roads.

I thanked them for their help and decided the back route was slightly preferable.

Th "terrible narrow" back road from Reay to Thurso.

The “terrible narrow” back road from Reay to Thurso.

I don’t know if the helpful lady has ever been across the county boundary but the “terrible narrow” road was not very narrow at all. If we had been driving tanks we could probably have proceeded two abreast.

By now the cycling had become a chore. There was little of interest, it seemed, or perhaps because of the constant rain we had become uninterested in our surroundings.

"You don't have to do this," the cows seemed to be saying. Even the sheep in the background don't seem to be able to believe their eyes.

“You don’t have to do this,” the cows seemed to be saying. Even the sheep in the background don’t seem to be able to believe their eyes.

Only a group of cows caused me to pause and take a photo. They seemed bemused by our presence. I got the impression they were thinking: “What are these clowns doing? We have no choice but to stand out in any weather – they could be indoors.”

We peddled on and the miles were steadily completed. Eventually I realised we must be approaching Thurso. We cycled through some untidy, semi-agricultural, semi-industrial outskirts of the town.

Our first impression of Thurso.

Our first impression of Thurso.

It is probably unfair to judge any town on such a day. But to be frank Thurso, on first glance, did not impress. We quickly found our hotel in Sinclair Street and were simply happy to scurry inside and take shelter. We were a little early but they were happy for us to use our room straight away.

After a shower and a change into dry clothes we felt much better but the weather was still dreich, as the Scots say, and did not encourage exploration – that would have to come later.

Tomorrow – our day in Thurso.

Share This Post

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *