Hike Northbound through Britain with Daryl May
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The shots with the signs were kindly taken and provided by Dave Howes
DN56 Finish line
DN56 JOG sign
DN56 Author at Groats Hotel
Days N45 - N56                                                                Scottish Highlands
Day N56 - Wick to John o'Groats
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Southbound Home
Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Time of departure: 8.30 am
Time of arrival: 3.00 pm
Place departed: Wick, Highland
Place arrived: John o' Groats, Highland

Miles: 17.4
Cum miles: 927.7
Percent complete: 100.0

Bed sign Seaview Guest House, Wick (by bus from John o' Groats)  ***
Cost for bed and breakfast: 20 ($40)
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DN56 Cattle greeting
DN56 JOG harbor
I set out on the last leg of my journey with mounting anticipation, and made excellent progress on lightly traveled roads. It was good weather for hiking, at least in comparison with my average Scottish weather.  In spite of a half-hour sitting on the roadside doing some telephoning, I arrived at John o' Groats at 3 pm.  I seemed to be walking faster and faster, and the records later confirmed it.
 
Today was my mother's birthday.  She would have loved to follow my progress on this hike.  She knew a lot of the geography, and even spent some of her early years in Cornwall right where I walked. As much as she would have worried on my behalf about injury, she would have been thrilled to see me succeed.

Along the route today, I was greeted by about 20 head of cattle, who scampered over to my edge of their field when they saw me. They all then faced me as if to hear me speak. With such an attentive audience, I couldn't resist making a brief speech, thanking them for coming over and hoping they were having a capital day.

Their interest in me was inexplicable, and so I created a fictional explanation. These cattle knew whence I had come! I was like a mail-ship in the old days, a bearer of news from afar.  "No, Daisy," I said, "I have no news of your Aunt Agatha in Cornwall."

"Yes, Hector," I said, "Your sister Agnes is doing just fine down in Devon, though her nipples are a bit tender.  But I'm afraid I have no news of Uncle Stu in Somerset."

"Henrietta, your brother Bill is having a hard time in Shropshire, what with his gout and all."

"Clarence, my sincere condolences about the loss of your cousin, Susan, but I'm sure that she made some diners in Lancashire very happy."

I've read that global warming is causing cows to need to drink more water. As a result, their milk is diluted, causing an increase in the amount it takes to make cheese, and changing the types of cheese they make. Hopefully those wonderful British cheeses will continue to flow from British cheeseries for a long while before they switch to Mozzarella and Ricotta. In the past eight weeks, I had enjoyed many a fine Caerphilly, Double Gloucester, Wensleydale, and Red Leicester – as well as the old-faithful of world cheeses, Cheddar, whose ancestral home was a couple of miles from my stop in Axbridge six weeks ago.

Today I saw some clouds of gnats, which Scotland is known for in summer, and was pleased that I hadn't encountered them before now.

When I reached John o’Groats, I was enthusiastically greeted by Dave and Sylvia H from Leicester, who had seen me on the road and now took me under their wing by hosting me in their camping trailer.  I enjoyed their company immensely - and also a beer and some of that terrific British cheese that I just alluded to.  Then, after some picture-taking which Dave and Sylvia kindly assisted with, we went over to the Groats Hotel where I signed the Visitors Book and enjoyed a free beer from the barman.  (Is that perhaps the only wise reason for this hike?)

John o’Groats is a desolate sort of place, but it has some atmosphere and views of the Orkneys to which there's a passenger ferry from the pretty little harbor. Nevertheless, after just three hours there, I decided to take the bus back to Wick to overnight there again.  Before leaving, we asked the barman to give us an idea of how many end-to-end walkers there are. He said there were far more bikers than hikers, but wasn't able to give us a number, except that I was only the third hiker to arrive this year (today was May 16). Although I studied the Visitors Book for a while, I was too preoccupied to do any real analysis.  Dave and I figured there might be 25 end-to-end hikers a year, but we could be much in error.

After we parted, I put my head into another pub, and drank a toast to my fictional friend, Arthur Bourke-Stewart and his equally fictional sidekick, McSlovak. I could visualize BS in his shirt with the oversize lapel, his red-tinged trousers and his sandals, now a prosperous business man in his home town of Lower-yorunda-Weare, selling my high-speed socks and Fechan whisky, and married to a madam at the local hotel, who worked days as a policewoman.  At his side, McSlovak sat in full Highland regalia, planning out loud in his strange east-European accent for a distinguished career as a Scottish restaurateur, and getting ready to forge his Michelin three-star plaque.

These strange characters were part of my hiking experience, bringing companionship and mirth to some of my lonely days and evenings.  I have not seen them since, but I will not forget them.

The latitude of John o’Groats is approximately the same as Stavanger in Norway, Stockholm in Sweden, St. Petersburg in Russia, Churchill in Canada, and Skagway, Alaska. At this time of year, there are about 18 hours of daylight each day.

Reaching into the future to tap a future thought, I realized as I bused south from John o’Groats, over some of the ground that I'd walked . . . just what an incredible distance I'd covered.  From the bus, I watched the road for a considerable time to see just one day's walk go by, each curve, straight section, hill and farm being familiar to me from the time I had slogged away to cover that territory. The grass verges, on to which I'd stepped hundreds of times to get out of harm's way, all had their own character - and had wrought their own twisted ankles, or soaked the sides of my boots.  The sheep largely ignored the bus, and yet I had had a fleeting personal relationship with thousands of them as I slowly passed their meadows. Sheep wool on wire fences wasn't really evident from the bus, but I had gathered enough of it to introduce an urban kindergarten class to it.  The bus's windshield wipers deftly kept the rain at bay as I sat in the warmth of the interior without carrying my backpack. It was a far cry from being in the elements for hours each day away from shelter, hefting my belongings.

This was the last run of the day for the bus driver who carried me back to Wick as his only passenger. He drove me out of his way to a B&B.  This kindness only comes in small towns. I won’t mention his name to keep him out of trouble, but I've a feeling that the powers-that-be in Wick would wink at it anyway.

Some people weep in relief when they reach the end of this hike, and an unknown number weep for having given up in early days.

I did not weep. But if I had, it would have been out of sadness that it was over.

And so I rejoined ordinary life after creating my own precious world for a while - my special British spring.
Day N55                             2007 and 2008 Daryl May            Southbound Home