Although it was a late night last night, trying to coax the Wi-Fi into loading the photos for this blog, I woke feeling refreshed and ready for the last full day. Our B and B is also a campsite, and you'll be unsurprised to hear that it's the most northerly B and B and campsite in the UK mainland. But as well as the hospitality for humans, they provide similar to seals. They run a rehabilitation centre for baby seals that have been injured or abandoned. The next nearest seal sanctuary is in Edinburgh, 250 miles away. Phil, the owner, is also a coastguard whilst not making breakfast for people like me. The seals are not on public display, as the idea is to keep them away from humans as much as possible, to improve the chances of them adapting back to the wild once they are released again. But he let us peer through the chinks in the fence around one of their tanks, so that I could see their little faces popped out of the water. I've been on full wildlife alert again today, looking for seals or cetaceans in the wild, but sadly those little babies in the tank were the only ones so far.
I thought that there was no better person than a coastguard to ask about the state of the coastal path around here. Phil said that the path from Brough to Dunnet Head was fine, if a little overgrown, but the section going east was less well used. David and I were going to walk up the road initially to the headland, and then I planned to walk back along the coast, if it looked OK.
We started on a tiny diversion down to look at Hen's Head, a rock formation in the little bay just around the corner. The weather was again glorious, and the colours were like yesterday, bright clear blues. The Orkney islands were looking so close, with the detail on their cliffs very obvious. I've had a few kind comments about my photographs on the blog. I just use my phone, a camera would be too much weight. It's an iPhone 14 Pro, and I don't add any filters or do anything fancy with it. When Tasha was here she put some filters on some of my photographs for the days we were together, but other than those couple of days the photos have been exactly as I have seen the colours.
Although the road was only single track, it was busy with tourists going to look at the most northerly point on the UK mainland. The road was pretty much all there was, on either side there was moorland, heather, grasses and lochans with some evidence of peat cutting too.
We walked quietly, I was trying to hold on to all of it, and David was drinking it in. The road climbed, and we passed some campers making their morning ablutions in another imaginatively named body of water - Long Loch. Two of the men were fully swimming, whilst the third was standing, shoulders raised and tummy pulled in, making frantic splashes on his body. They encouraged him to get right into the water by saying 'it's actually almost hot!' I didn't believe them, and nor did he.
Eventually we could see many of the campervans collected together in the car park. I saw a footpath off to the side over the grass, and followed it. This led around the side of where many were looking at the cliffs, giving us a slightly less busy approach to the point. It was also rather more hazardous, taking us very close to the edge.
I couldn't look when a man got nearer and nearer to the cliff edge so that his partner could take a better photo. The cliffs are high, stark and the light on them was crisp. They are 85 metres above sea level, and were alive with sea birds. As we moved along to the path to the viewing platform, I found my face pouring with tears. I'd walked here.
I could have done with it being a bit less busy and I was feeling that standing silently crying was going to be looking a bit alarming. So after a tear stained selfie (that I very nearly forgot to do) of us both at the most northerly tip of the UK mainland we moved away from the crowds.
The 1831 lighthouse is the obvious building on the point, but there are also a number of other more recent buildings. This place was a coast defence U-boat station, and many thousands of servicemen lived around here in the war. We made our way to the summit, from which the views of the headland and the Orkneys were brilliant. There I met Jo, who kindly sponsored me and cheered me on for the last bit of the journey.
We had to make a decision about whether to repeat the journey back on the road, or whether we were indeed to go on the coastal path, thus making a loop. David gets vertigo, which can be a problem on coastal paths, and he was also a bit concerned about me doing a possibly more risky route the day before I finish. However, I remembered that Phil had said that it was fine, and from the top of the headland we could see the path clearly making its way a distance from the edge. We bumped into a couple who had walked a bit of it, but were returning as it was too far from their car in the car park. I told them that we had walked up the road and then were thinking of walking back on the coastal path. He looked me up and down and said 'that's a long walk for you, it must be at least 5 miles'. I restrained myself. I hope everyone is proud. I couldn't resist telling him what my average mileage has been for the last 43 days though. I think he got the picture.
We decided to follow the path. And it was glorious, away from all the people, following a clear route that wasn't too scarily near the edge. The heather was almost in full bloom, the birds were singing, the sky was blue, the sea was clear. Everything was great.
Until it wasn't. Suddenly, in the way that happened to me a couple of times on the Pennine Way, the path disappeared. We followed possible leads for a while, until we realised we had headed quite a way from the cliff edge. So we worked our way back across the knots of heather, until we found what looked like a stile. Alas, it was a tall barbed wire fence, with a couple of planks leaning hopefully to the side of it. With some considerable wobbling, and a couple of trouser snags, we hauled ourselves over.
So now we were on the correct side of the fence, with the sea to our left, and the only way to go was forward. Except that forward meant going through a plantation of bracken that was up to my shoulders. Bracken is sturdy stuff, it knots round your legs if you try to push through it, and it needs force to break through. I led the charge, and this sweaty and frustrating section went on for what felt like miles. We were too far on to consider retracing our steps, there was nothing for it but to persist.
Eventually the bracken gave way to long grasses, and then finally the presence of some rickety wooden edifices to cross the couple of burns showed that we were indeed on a path. As we finally climbed over a chained and locked gate I saw the footpath sign pointing in the direction that we had come, chirpily describing itself as 'Easyways'.
We returned to our B and B's cafe for a restorative drink before I set off on the rest of the journey. It had convinced me that I wouldn't be attempting any more coastal path today, it would be roads all the way from now on. So I sadly swapped my lovely boots back for my trainers, and left David to potter about before meeting me later on at our final B and B.
I was very keen to avoid the busy road from yesterday, so mapped a course that used back lanes. This made it a bit longer, but an extra mile on quiet roads is worth two in the bush. This was lovely quiet walking, almost like footpaths with the occasional vehicle. So ideal for today's listening.
My friend Nick had got in touch last night, and had sent me such a kind and thoughtful message. Together with some lovely comments about the walk and the blog, he'd also done some work on the puzzling inscription on the commemorative bench in Reay, where Donald MacKay was described also as Jenny Horne. Based on the results of his research, it seems likely, he said, that Donald MacKay was a poet, and likely used the name Jenny Horne when writing. The reasons for this are still lost though. Nick kindly referenced all the children that I have taught over the years, and suggested Pachelbel's canon, or a simple piece of flute music to represent them. I found a version of the canon played by James Galway, and then also Debussy's Syrinx by the same flautist. I was a huge fan of James Galway as a flute playing teenager. Listening to the Pachelbel reminded me of playing the piece together as a family, both in happy and sad contexts, and the evocative and haunting Syrinx seemed very appropriate for this quiet place. At the hotel yesterday, Janet had suggested Tina Turner's 'Simply the best'. She was kindly talking about me doing the walk, but instead I found myself remembering the hilarity we had as a staff team devising a dance routine to this to surprise Olwyn, our outgoing head teacher. Margaret and Callum had chosen a song on behalf of their son Mark who has additional needs. He loved 'I believe' by Cher, and they described how he would put his ears to the television if it was being played.
Jane, who sings in my choir, had got in touch to say that her mother, who lives in Florida had been enjoying reading the blog. She loves Elvis Presley, and so I had a bit of 'Jailhouse Rock'. When I was at school I sometimes played the outgoing music for my school assemblies. For some reason, one day I decided that Jailhouse Rock would be an appropriate piece to send everyone out to lessons. I don't remember getting into trouble for this, but I'm sure words must have been said. And finally, I listened to one that David had sent me. He loves folk music, I am more ambivalent, though I have enjoyed quite a lot of it during Scotland. He suggested 'Never Tire of the Road' by Andy Irvine. Which seemed appropriate.
As I approached Scarfskerry village I had finished the sponsors' songs, and had started to choose some of my favourites. When I started, 43 days ago, the first day was out on the Pennine Way, and I was utterly overwhelmed by being out in those big spaces again, on my own again, making my way again. I listened that day to Skyline Pigeon by Elton John, Dopamine by The Arcadian Wild and Knees Deep by The Beths. Those songs all spoke deeply to me then, and have been played regularly through the walk as a comfort or a way of releasing emotions. 'Fly away to all those dreams you left so very far behind' 'why don't you look your life in the eye'. 'I''ll never be brave like you'. It wasn't taking much today for the emotions to come out, but this time I wasn't in the Pennines away from everyone. I was walking through a little Caithness village, with people doing their gardens, doing DIY, living their normal lives. They didn't know that as I was walking past them, acknowledging their friendly greetings, I was fighting back tears of pride, happiness and of oncoming loss.
I remembered Russell's wise words about eating if you feel tearful, and realised that it had been four hours since I'd had anything. So I thought I'd just sit somewhere at the side of the road and have lunch, but something kept me moving a little bit further. Then opposite me I saw a mowed path through the grasses next to the coast. I followed it, and found the most perfect place. High above the sea, looking out to the islands, it was silent of any human sound, just the splashing of the waves on the rocks, the calling of the seabirds and the slight blowing of the wind past my face. As the place for my last lunch it was unsurpassable. And the sandwich was excellent too. Cheese (obviously) but on rye bread with pickles. Well done, Mr Tesco.
I could have stayed there for hours. But I continued along the mowed path, which led me past more gasp-out-loud beautiful seascapes.
And then it brought me back to the road, ready to continue the last few miles. I'd hoped to get a look at the Castle of Mey today, but sadly it's occupied this week by the King. It appears 'Charlie' (as every local who has mentioned him has called him) isn't receiving visitors. I was told that he was at the Mey Highland Games though, and (approvingly) that 'he likes his dram'. I could just about see his castle, but like the tower of a couple of days ago, it looked like it was standing in a hole.
I just pottered along the quiet lanes, chatting on the phone to Philip about tomorrow, until soon I saw David waiting for me at the B and B. This place is a complete gem. So quiet, and the owner served fantastic food to our room whilst we sat at a little table watching the bull in the next field with his herd of wives and children wandering around.
And tomorrow is the last day. I'll be walking from here to Duncansby Head, the most north easterly point in the UK, and the furthest away from Lands End. Then I'll go a little further down to look at the Duncansby Stacks, and then back from there along the coast to John O'Groats. I should arrive late lunchtime. People have been asking me how I'm feeling, and if I manage not to cry all over them I actually find it quite hard to answer, there's a lot. I'm delighted that I've actually made it this far, and I'm proud of my determination to make it happen. I'm also bereft at the idea of the whole thing coming to an end, as it has made me so deeply happy. But I'm also just a bit astonished, I think. That I've actually walked here, and that this dream that's been hatching for six years appears to be about to be completed.
Distance travelled: 14.3 miles
Total ascent: 804 feet
Calories burned: 1886
Local tipple - Hip Pop Ginger and Yuzu Kombucha
Dinner at Burnside B and B - one of the best of the trip. Strongly recommend if you're in this area.
Smoked trout from the Caithness smokery with huge salad and sweet potato fries
Salted caramel pineapple upside down cake. AMAZING!!!
Sponsors' music, thanks to Nick, Janet, Margaret & Callum, Jane and Jane's mum, and David
Pachelbel canon played by James Galway
Syrinx - Debussy
The Best - Tina Turner
Believe - Cher
Jailhouse Rock - Elvis Presley
Never tire of the road - Andy Irvine
Video of the day