Storming into Ayrshire
The south bank of the River Clyde was viewed on a mild, sunny day from a mix of the Clyde Coastal Path and National Cycle Route 75. Formerly a railway track, Route 75 was certainly suffering from ‘leaves on the line’, but it didn’t stop the Victory Walker in her tracks! Nicknamed the ‘High Route’, this Greenock to Glasgow line was a popular route with sailors during WW2 who found themselves waiting for sailing orders at Greenock.
Historically Glasgow, the Clyde and Greenock are all steeped in memories of shipbuilding, wealth, merchant trading and a vast naval presence during WWII. This area, known as Inverclyde, still describes itself as ‘Export Capital of Scotland’. Noting how busy its Container Terminal was that afternoon, I can understand why. Added to which, the area has actively marketed its Ocean Terminal where cruise ships cross the Atlantic to make regular visits to see Scotland’s stunning west coast.
I rounded the corner into Gourock whose origins were as a seaside resort overlooking the Firth of Clyde. Today it’s very much a residential area, but ferries still bustle back and forth to various destinations including Dunoon across the Firth. Thick mist obscured Dunoon, but on my walk towards Inverkip I was still able to see Cloch lighthouse ahead of me on a road bend. This struck me as a very unusual traffic light!
My lasting memory of Inverkip will not be of Kip Marina, but of its unusual war memorial placed on a headland overlooking the Firth of Clyde. The memorial doesn’t list the men by their Service, nor does it give their age. Instead the three sides listed names under the following headings: At Sea; Of Wounds; In POW Camp; On the Western Front; At Gallipoli; In Palestine; In Mesopotamia; At Sea; On Home Service.
Further down the coast I arrived at Wemyss with its pier and station which act as Scotland’s main gateway to Rothesay on the Island of Bute. Wemyss station is the terminus on the Inverclyde Line and in recent years has clearly undergone a major refurbishment, as has its wide covered walkway leading passengers down to the pier and CalMac ferry.
Wemyss is all but joined to Skelmorlie where I knew I’d pick up the Ayrshire Coastal Path – a route of 100 miles that will lead me south to Glenapp, near Stranraer. The first leg took me on a back route to Largs. Gaining height on a quiet rural route, had it not been for the mist, I should have had excellent views across the Firth to Bute, Great Cumbrae and back over other peninsulas I’d previously walked.
My first views of Largs were also dismal, wet and grey. It wasn’t until I got down into the town did I appreciate its wide esplanade, art deco café and its links with the Vikings – something the town is very proud of and celebrates each year. In October 1263 a battle took place between the kingdoms of Norway and Scotland. Bad weather caused the Norwegians to lose many of their longships on Largs’ shore, thus ensuring a Scottish victory. It took until 1912 for the aptly named Pencil Monument to be built to commemorate that victory.
Bad weather in Largs struck again in 2018 in the form of Storm Callum. We were fortunate enough to be offered a safe place to ride out the storm within Largs Yacht Haven. Rain and wind howled in overnight and continued throughout the following day. It was during this spell that we learned that the ‘Rest and Be Thankful’ route which I’d walked through less than two weeks ago had been closed owing to a landslip caused by Callum’s torrential rains. I am thankful that I walked through when I did.
Frustrated at my grounding in the Yacht Haven, I ventured out and managed half a day’s mileage, only to receive a further drenching the following day as I squelched towards Stevenston. Here, the path circled a vast area dominated by former explosives and chemical factories once owned by Nobel, then ICI. It was a depressing walk that continued next day down by Irvine harbour where I spotted ICI’s old terminal.
Irvine town and harbour used to be one of Scotland’s busiest ports, once on a par with Glasgow. In the 1700s coal was brought by carters from nearby collieries and loaded onto small ships. The Carter and Horse memorial on the harbourside is a tribute to the forerunners of today’s hauliers. For many years the Ayrshire Dockyard Company was a shipyard on the river Irvine. Initially involved with shipbuilding, its focus changed: one of its claims to fame was that it manufactured fittings for other ships including Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth 2.
I know I’m still in Scotland as golf clubs along the coastline have suddenly reappeared. During a walking distance of 50 miles I passed a dozen: West Kilbride, Ravenspark, Auchenharvie, Irvine, Glasgow, Dundonald Links, Kilmarnock (Brasserie), Troon Welbeck, Troon Portland, Royal Troon, Prestwick and St Nicholas. Beat that!
The first on this list, Gourock, kindly provided us with an overnight stop to get us off the road, and at Prestwick I saw a simple stone cairn that marks where the first ever Open Championship tee shot was struck 158 years ago on 17 October 1860. And to coin a phrase – ‘the rest is history’. Meanwhile, I’ve added another errant ball to my Round Britain collection of golf balls. There will be more!
See Photo Album Numbers 51 – Arriving South Beach Ardrossan; Ayrshire Coastal Path; Storming into Ayrshire
Crossing the Clyde
Owing to an extended walking week, Victory Log entry Number 39 has been split into two parts. This second Log entry takes the reader from Faslane, across the River Clyde and into Bishopton where one of four Erskine Homes is situated.
After so much time on the road it felt strange to be walking into Faslane, HM Naval Base Clyde. A warm welcome awaited, accompanied by coffee and a large plate of ‘sticky buns’. If that wasn’t enough to bring a smile to the Victory Walker’s face, the presentation of a bunch of flowers and boxed bottle of ‘bubbly’ made me smile even more! Presented by the Base Warrant Officer, WO1 Wayne Burbury, on behalf of the trustees from both naval charities – WRNS BT and RNRMC – it was good to receive long distance congratulations after clocking 3,000 miles last week.
Everyone was most hospitable and I enjoyed the change from my usual solo routine. Despite the rain, people in Faslane came out to support me and over £300 was collected by gym staff zipping about with buckets. Thank you. The resident Naval Base piper also appeared on the roadside to pipe me out of the Base, bringing the morning to a musical conclusion. After that I rejoined the A814 to listen to the music of traffic!
Entering Rhu I could just about see across to the Rosneath peninsula; this marks the place where Gare Loch leads into the River Clyde. Today, a large caravan park is situated on an area where Rosneath House once stood: a grand residence built by the Duke of Argyll in 1806. He and the Duchess, who was Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise, lived here for some while. During the early part of WWII the house was requisitioned for military use but it latterly fell into decay before being demolished in 1961.
At Helensburgh, it would have been possible for me to catch a ferry across the Clyde to its south bank at Gourock, saving myself a walk of 30 miles. However, as I’d agreed to visit the Erskine Home I ignored the ferry terminal, instead focussing my attention on the bust of John Logie Baird, the television inventor. Nearby, a beautiful granite needle commemorates another famous Helensburgh resident, Henry Bell. As a local hotelier he had the idea of getting a steam powered ship to bring trippers up the river Clyde from Glasgow to fashionable Helensburgh. The paddle steamer, Comet, was launched in 1812 for this purpose and later the service was extended out to Scotland’s west coast by making use of the Crinan Canal.
Following the banks of the Clyde, I passed through a somewhat depressed looking Dumbarton before picking up Cycle Route No 7. The section I walked had been created from an old railway line which led me to the boat basin at Bowling and its lock gates on the Forth and Clyde Canal. Opened in 1790, the 35-mile canal route enabled small seagoing ships to cross from one side of Scotland to the other, by linking the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth. Leaving the towpath, it wasn’t long before I clambered up onto the Erskine bridge and found myself crossing the Clyde river. To my left, a regular stream of planes flew in and out of Glasgow’s airport, beyond which Glasgow’s skyline was clearly evident. Although my walking route didn’t take me into Glasgow city, the following day we travelled into the centre where the Duke of Wellington’s famous statue in Royal Exchange Square still wears a traffic cone - probably not what the Italian sculptor Carlo Marochetti would have had in mind in 1844!
The walking week concluded at Erskine House, Bishopton, where we were given permission to park up for a few nights. The Bishopton site is the largest of four Erskine sites. Hosted by the fundraising team we found our Erskine Home tour extremely informative. With its origins dating from WW1, when Scotland recognised it needed a hospital to treat those who had lost limbs in the Great War, its own specialist hospital was proposed. Initially called the Princess Louise Scottish Hospital for Limbless Soldiers and Sailors after its first Royal Patron, the hospital was located in Erskine mansion and estate. This had been loaned for the duration of the war by its owner Thomson Aikman. Amongst the influential businessmen who offered support to the hospital during its infancy was Harrold Yarrow from the nearby family shipyard; his workforce helped to create and develop artificial limbs. Later, Sir John Reid provided the funds to buy Erskine mansion and estate outright, thus securing the hospital’s future.
The original estate was built on vast proportions with no expense spared. Examples of this can be seen in the large, beautifully constructed piggery and luxurious stable block. Today, the stable building forms part of the Reid Macewen Activity Centre, where veterans can try their hand at different past-times such as painting and woodwork. Not only has it proved therapeutic, it has also highlighted the fact that some veterans have a latent creative talent. Veterans who do not reside in the Home can also make use of these facilities.
No longer undertaking medical operations or called a hospital, Erskine provides cottages, assisted living apartments and has a separate site for veterans with acute dementia. Outside, the gardens are wheelchair friendly and beautifully landscaped, and residents’ apartments are built to favour views across these grounds. Once the domain of male soldiers and sailors, today Erskine caters for men and women of all three services, and their spouses. The RNRMC has provided grants to Erskine, thereby ensuring that RN, RM, RFA and former ‘Wrens’ will benefit from the home’s facilities if admitted. The 180 residents all know how fortunate they are to be in such a superb home.
See Photo Album No 50 - Crossing the Clyde
Leaving Campbeltown behind, it took me a further three days to complete the Kintyre Peninsula. During that time I walked north beside Kilbrannan Sound with views across to the Isle of Arran and passed through the delightfully named village of Grogport, past Crossaig beach, visited Carradale harbour and parked overnight on Claonaig jetty. Bound for Tarbert, I’d to complete one final section of cross-country walking on the Kintyre Way which I joined at the tiny village of Skipness. Here I found its primary school had recently been closed and boarded up; seeing its empty playground and redundant swings moving idly in the breeze was a forlorn sight. Incredibly, a little further down the road, I discovered a small shop and Post Office that provides a daily counter service to residents.
Along the Kintyre Way forest views, woodland tracks, together with swathes of wind and rain accompanied me for almost my entire journey to Tarbert. I noticed some croft remains but apart from this I saw no sheep, cattle or deer – just acres of trees. Much later, when leaving the forest track to begin a steep descent into Tarbert, I came across Tarbert’s colossal Millenium Cairn, built by a proud uncle when twin nephews were born in year 2,000. I wonder if the babes, now adults, appreciate their uncle’s spectacular effort?! Further down I’d good views over to Tarbert and below I could see a CalMac ferry that would soon transport me across Loch Fyne, and also mark the end of my 120 mile walk round the Kintyre Peninsula.
Having crossed Loch Fyne, we were given permission to park overnight amongst the boats in the incredible Portavadie complex which offers marina facilities, restaurants, self-catering apartments, spa, cottages and much more. The site was originally created in the mid-1970s when it was planned to build concrete oil rig platforms for the North Sea industry. A dry dock was created and a nearby 5 star village called Polphail was built for the intended 500 workers. As so often happens, circumstances can quickly change a plan: OPEC oil prices plummeted and steel platforms rather than concrete were regarded as the way to go, so the yard received no orders.
Despite many alternative ideas being put forward, Polphail was never occupied and the ghost village was only finally demolished at the end of 2016. Part of the Portavadie dock area briefly became a fish farm, but it wasn’t until the Bulloch family came with a new vision that the old dry dock area flourished in its new life. The dry dock now forms the basis of a marina, and the other facilities have been created around it. This is an incredible transformation which is clearly doing well and offers local residents good employment.
Loch Fyne is one of Scotland’s longest sea lochs and as I made my way up its eastern shores I followed the old road with its distinctive finger mileposts. Upgraded and called the West Cowal Timber Route, the road passed through mile upon mile of forestry plantations. Where winds had blown over the conifers there were walls of uprooted trees whose root disks resembled stranded spider crabs. My two day trek up the loch was in weather of complete contrasts: passing through Otter Ferry white horses and rain ripped up the water, but later at Lephinmore, Lachlan Castle, Garbhallt and Strachur the sun shone through the autumnal golds, yellows and oranges.
That night we parked the Van at St Catherine’s village with our head barely inches off the A815 as lorries trundled through the night. The walk on this newly surfaced road with fresh chippings in torrential rain is not one I’d wish to repeat. At my Hell’s Glen junction I discovered the Tinkers’ Heart – a meeting place where travelling tinkers and gypsies met and married. Recently restored, it is a reminder of how people used to travel to make a living. After a steep climb away from the ‘A’ road I plunged deeper and deeper into Hell’s Glen, a steep sided wooded valley with Moses’ Well near the bottom. The moan of the wind in the trees sounded like approaching traffic, fooling me more than once. Inevitably, the drop came before an equivalent hard climb up another valley, to a junction aptly called The Rest and Be Thankful, where I did just that!
This spot was given that name by weary soldiers with a sense of humour, who in the 1740s built the old (military) road that rises up Glen Croe. Here, they placed a stone with The Rest and Be Thankful inscription on it at the head of the Glen. Although the original stone became damaged, it was replaced by another in 1768 which can be seen at the Glen’s viewing point. Today’s main ‘A’ road runs high above and parallel to the military road, but I opted to take the old deserted military road as I pushed on to Arrochar sited at the head of Loch Long.
Next morning it was yet another very wet walk down Loch Long before crossing over to Gare Loch. I was on target to walk into Faslane, HM Naval Base Clyde, the following day. Forty-nine weeks earlier I’d left HM Naval Base Portsmouth to walk 3,124 miles to this Scottish Base. There has to be a quicker way to travel!
See Photo Album Numbers 49 – Walking Loch Fyne; Destination Faslane
Clocking Three Thousand Miles
Storm Ali hit us while we were parked on a site overlooking the sea. The sky glowered and then the flashes and crashes began. Extremely high winds caused the Victory Van to shake and creak like an old sailing boat, but it was the ferocious heavy rain that made us wonder if we’d survive the night. Peppering the van so heavily, it sounded as if ball-bearings were being lashed at us. It was so deafening we couldn’t hear one another speak.
Next morning I ventured out, even though the winds remained strong and intermittent torrential showers blew in. Arriving at West Tarbert, where the lengthy Kintyre Peninsula starts, I was faced with a professional dilemma: do I take a 1-mile walk across the top of Kintyre to Tarbert, or a 120-mile route down and round the Peninsula which resembles a long pointy finger? On its eastern tip, at the first finger joint lies Campbeltown, famed for its whisky and strong naval connections. Not for the first time I elected for the long route option!
Walking south, at Clachan I joined the Kintyre Way - another of Scotland’s Great Trails which covers 100 miles down to Kintyre’s fingertip. Owing to its meandering path I would not use it all, but it set me off alongside the Sound of Gigha with its Island occasionally visible through driving rain. Along the way I passed through places such as Tayinloan, Muasdale, Glennbarr, Bellochantuy and eventually Machrihanish Bay, where I circled Campbeltown’s Airport. Formerly a military airfield, it has seen changing fortunes during its lifetime.
Originally created for the Royal Naval Air Service during WWI, it initially had one small grass runway. During WWII the Royal Navy built four concrete runways and the air station was commissioned as HMS Landrail. It was reported to be one of the UK’s largest air stations, used by both the Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force before closing shortly after war ended.
The airfield enjoyed a renaissance during the Cold War of the 1960s, when a lengthy 10,000-foot runway replaced the four RN runways. By now the RAF was firmly in residence and further investment was made in the late 80s and 90s to enable NATO usage too. Used by the RAF’s unmistakable Vulcan bomber force, it was also certified to accept the NASA Space Shuttle had it needed to make an emergency landing in Europe. By 2012 the MOD sold the entire site: today part of it is a business park and the rest remains as Campbeltown’s airport.
Leaving Machrihanish I could look back over this vast area with such a rich military history. Ahead of me lay one of the toughest walks yet on another section of the Kintyre Way. Recent wind and rain had made conditions over this already difficult terrain very much worse. En route I enjoyed a solitary lunch break overlooking a picturesque valley before being routed to the cliff edge, followed by a lengthy steep climb away from the sea.
Below me at Innean Cove I saw the Sailor’s Grave which dates back over a century. In May 1917 a lone shepherd found human remains washed ashore. Assumed to be a sailor, the remains were buried in the cove, since when passing hikers and locals have kept a watchful eye on the grave’s maintenance.
The Way led me inland from the coast, but as I was keen to go out to Mull of Kintyre’s lighthouse, there followed a 14-miler out and back; we’d assessed the roads were not suitable for the Victory Van to come and retrieve me. In between squalls I had clear views across to County Antrim in Northern Ireland, twelve miles out to sea. My outward route to the lighthouse was on a single-track road through open moorland and forests, uphill all the way from sea level to 1,148ft. Once there, I lost all that height as I made an almost vertical descent to the lighthouse at the base of the cliffs, only to clamber all the way up again afterwards!
On the way I made a detour to a memorial placed to remember the 29 lives lost in a tragic Chinook helicopter crash on 2 June 1994. As well as the 4 crew members killed on that dreadful evening, 25 intelligence experts from the Army, MI5, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (now called Police Service of Northern Ireland) also lost their lives. One of those killed was Tony Hornby who had served with Frank in the Royal Marines before deciding to transfer to the Army. Standing on the spot made me shudder to think what the first rescuers would have seen as they raced up the hill to the accident. I was glad I made the effort to walk out to the Mull to see the lighthouse and this memorial.
Returning to the Kintyre Way I walked around the fingertip overlooking Davaar Island, then on up alongside Campbeltown Loch. The sun was shining, which added to the satisfaction of ‘clocking’ 3,000 miles on the approaches to this town. I couldn’t have chosen a better place for my special moment. That evening I was invited to attend Training Ship Campbeltown’s biannual Royal Naval Parade, where the staff and cadets also celebrated my milestone event by giving me a warm welcome and making a generous donation to the Victory Walk. Thank you Campbeltown.
Since then I’ve sat quietly and contemplated what my 3,000 miles means. It’s the equivalent of walking across the United States of America – I find it hard to believe.
See Photo Album Numbers 48 – Storm Ali at Loch West Tarbert Part 1; Storm Ali at Loch West Tarbert Part 2; On the Kintyre Way – Lunch Stop; Innean Cove on the Kintyre Way; Clocking 3,000 Miles
As each day has passed in Argyll I feel as if my feet have become more web-like and I quack rather than talk. I’ve sploshed along, trying to take photos between frequent drownings.
After Oban the latter part of this week’s route has taken me through Knapdale, a vast rural area in Argyll & Bute. While idling away my time I came across a sign announcing the World Stone Skimming Championships! Were you aware of such a thing? They’ll take place this weekend on Easdale Island, a tiny inhabited island of the Inner Hebrides. Started in 1983, and resurrected in 1997 after a fallow period, there are categories for male and female contestants, children and adults, including the humorously named ‘Old Tosser’ category for those men and women aged over 60!
Dead-end walking continues too and as always these have been interesting: each of the peninsulas has its own very definite character. Before heading out to Craignish Point I walked through the tastefully designed Craobh Haven, a purpose-built village, resort and marina created in 1983. Later that day I pushed against winds to reach Craignish Point, beyond which is the world’s third largest tidal whirlpool, known as the Corryvreckan Whirlpool. Was it the head winds making me dizzy or was I feeling the effects of the whirlpool?!
Moving inland, Kilmartin Glen offered ancient, more modern and current points of interest. Overlooking the Glen, the roofless hollow shell of Carnassarie Castle, the home of Bishop Carswell in the 1500s, dominated the skyline. The Bishop had translated John Knox’s Book of our Common Order into Gaelic. This was the first book printed in Scot Gaelic, the language of the Highlands. Although highly regarded for its architecture, the castle has remained a ruin ever since Royalist forces set it ablaze in 1685.
From its vantage point the castle overlooks Kilmartin Glen, famed for its numerous prehistoric monuments. These include chambered cairns, standing stones and rock carvings. My route took me past Nether Largie South burial cairn, which is believed to have been built over 3,500 years ago, as well as the standing stones at Temple Wood. By contrast I also walked by a working gravel pit which was somewhat of a blot on today’s landscape.
Hurrying on, I knew I’d entered Knapdale (the land of hills and fields) district when I reached the Crinan canal. The canal marks one of the borders of the Knapdale district. I crossed this canal over a swing bridge at Bellanoch. Built for the old steam ‘puffers’ that moved goods and people between the Clyde and Scotland’s west coast settlements, the canal enabled ships to travel from Glasgow out to the Sound of Jura and the isles of the Inner Hebrides, without a long detour round the Mull of Kintyre. After next week, I suspect I may discover how long this detour can be when I head down to Campbeltown!
Since crossing that swing bridge I’ve clambered up numerous hills and walked by a multitude of forests. Another dead-end saw me battle foul weather close to Loch Sween as I tramped out to the very remote hamlet of Keillmore. Here, I found a charming old stone pier and a few scattered houses - nothing more! Next day I made my way down the other side of Loch Sween, towards the Point of Knap, before veering away around yet another Loch. It wasn’t long before I was dropping down towards the beautiful Ellary Estate where Autumn colours are beginning to appear in the trees.
This makes me aware of the passage of time and the subtle change of seasons. Sunset happens now at 1930. whereas a seemingly short time ago we watched it set at 2230. All these things, as well as the rain, turns my mind to the gradual approach of winter – my second on the Victory Walk.
See Photo Album No 47 – Approaching Autumn
Aiming for the Buoys!
Seeing a sign outside Oban, warning ‘Dumb Dumpers’ that they risk being fined £40,000 if caught fly-tipping jolted me - my Highlands Honeymoon was clearly coming to an end.
After leaving the green shores of Loch Sunart earlier in the week, I trekked through Morven, another sparsely populated area where remote farms cling to hillsides. Morven’s western shores are bounded by the Sound of Mull which took a time to reach, only for heavy rain to obscure any views on arrival. There seems to be a pattern emerging with Scotland’s summer! On the Sound’s shores, the small village of Lochaline has a CalMac ferry link to the Isle of Mull, its own shop and fuel pumps which provide for Morvern inhabitants strung out along the dead-end road to Drimnin.
As I made my way along the shore of Mull Sound, skies cleared and I came across the arched Wishing Stone and made a wish of my own: more donations - please! At the final hamlet of Drimnin, I noticed a cairn erected to the memory of Charles Maclean who lost his life while leading the Macleans at Culloden in 1746.
After Morven I continued to follow a string of two-pronged metal mileposts which had initially counted me out to Drimnin. Later, I followed them as I was routed across the Kingairloch area, down towards a hamlet of the same name. The mileposts are helpful, but if feeling weary they never seem to come quick enough. Some have sadly been damaged or lost, and when that happens it’s a good feeling seeing the numbers unexpectedly jump in your favour!
We parked-up near Kingairloch village for a night where we found ourselves dwarfed by two vast mountains. Seen from afar, their dominance was much more noticeable as I walked away next morning aiming for Loch Linnhe. I spent a good part of a day walking up this beautiful Loch, before catching the busy ferry at Corran Narrows. Nearby, a new road bypasses Clovullin which had once been the route to the ferry. It was here in this small village I came across the local Registry Office – someone’s house where the owner works her hours ‘By Arrangement’.
Having crossed Loch Linnhe I began my walk down its southern shore past Onich and on towards North and South Ballachuish, once only linked by a ferry. Today, a road bridge links the two and I had excellent views down Loch Linnhe, and up Loch Leven towards Glencoe too. Until 1966 South Ballachulish used to have a railway station that linked the town to Oban via this branch line. Not only was the line used for passenger traffic, it also provided a means of getting slates from the Ballachulish quarry to builders in the growing cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow.
The old branch line now serves as both the Caledonian Way and Route 78 on the Sustrans Cycle network: I was glad to free myself from the nearby main roads and make use of this excellent route. In many places the old trackbed was too overgrown to be reused as the cycle route. Instead, some new sections were cut, and these often run parallel to the old railway line. As I walked Route 78 there were still clear reminders of the old railway with platform remains, deep cuttings and arched bridges which navvies and masons would have toiled over for many years. I found another reminder of the line at North Connel where its old cantilever railway bridge spanning Loch Etive now carries the A828.
The Macleans mentioned earlier are not the only clan who feature this week. Still in sight of South Ballachulish I came across a gloomy glade where a memorial to James Stewart (also known as James of the Glen) had been erected. James was a senior member of a leading Jacobite clan, who had been hung for the murder of Colin Campbell – the Campbells were keen Hanoverian supporters.
James Stewart had always proclaimed his innocence in what has become known as the Appin murder. Regarded as one of the great unsolved murders, Robert Louis Stevenson used it as a basis for his novel Kidnapped. It’s not for me to comment on Scottish Clan history, but it would seem the odds were heavily stacked against James of the Glen. He was held in a prison and denied access to his solicitor, the jury consisted mainly of Campbells and the Judge was Chief of Clan Campbell. Poor James didn’t have a chance. In more recent times his descendants have campaigned unsuccessfully for James to be pardoned.
Having been hung in November 1752, his body remained on public display under constant military guard until April 1754 as a reminder to all Jacobites. That’s not a guard duty I’d have fancied!
Along the Caledonian Way heading towards Oban I met Matt, a young farmhand from Cornwall. He’d decided to walk Brown Willy, the highest point of Bodmin Moor, before walking all the way to Scotland where he planned to go up Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain. We met during yet another wet day, but he remained committed to raising funds for a cancer charity. Unlike me, he was carrying his ‘home’ on his back; I admired his spirit, fortitude and fitness.
After all the tiny settlements I’ve passed this week, my arrival in Oban seemed like stepping into a big city port. The CalMac ferries, which operate a lifeline from Scotland’s mainland to numerous islands can be seen regularly steaming in and out of this busy port. Above the town, McCaig’s unfinished Tower, based on Rome’s Colosseum, dominates the skyline. Designed by John Stuart McCaig, a wealthy philanthropist, he intended the memorial to be both a lasting monument to his family and provide much needed work for local stonemasons.
My ‘bootometer’ clicked 2,800 miles as I entered Oban, where we are parked for the weekend in the Northern Lighthouse Board’s operational base. I’m surrounded by so many buoys of all shapes, colours and sizes, that I can’t tell my port from my starboard!
See Photo Album Numbers 46 – Walking Loch Linnhe Part 1; Walking Loch Linnhe Part 2; Aiming for the Buoys!
Way Out West
Reminders of volcanoes and ancient oak woods, the Jacobite Rebellions, the first ever Commando Training Centre, five more lochs and a village twinned with Mars are among the many things that I’ve encountered this week.
Following NASA’s naming of a geological feature on Mars as ‘Glenelg’, the small Scottish community of the same name decided to twin itself with its Mars namesake. The twinning partner is proudly proclaimed on its village road sign! I noticed this as I left the village to start the climb up and over the Ratagan Pass through vast areas of worked forests. Originally built as a military road after the first Jacobite rebellion, this road was used by the garrison stationed in the now decaying Bemera Barracks in Glenelg.
On reaching the Ratagan summit, imagine my surprise when I saw two Christmas trees at the edge of the forest already bedecked with baubles and tinsel. Will they do that to the whole forest, I wonder?! Dropping down from the 1,100ft summit to the next valley I was lucky enough to see loch Duich, the first of my five lochs, laid out before me with the Five Sisters mountain range behind. Later, as I walked Duich’s shores I looked across at the famous Eilean Donan Castle that regularly appears on Christmas shortbread tins.
Having exhausted the accessible parts of the coast in this area, we made our way back onto Skye where I joined the dots of last week by walking down to Armadale. Here it was a quick ferry crossing to Mallaig, chased by squally showers. As a working port, Mallaig was bustling with ferries, lorries, fish boats, tourists, and the Jacobite steam train hissing in its railway station, giving it a very crowded feel. Looking out to sea, the volcanic remains of Rhum, Eigg and Ardnamurchan Point were all evident – with the latter being my target for later in the week.
The route from Mallaig to Inverailort was a mix of coastal and main road walking. The main road had been constructed across open moorland, woods and through deep cuttings. Busy and noisy as this road was, I was amazed to find a lone male walker asleep on the verge just yards from car wheels whizzing by at 70mph. He looked happy enough, so I quietly stepped over him and continued!
As the day cooled I reached a stretch of water where the Prince’s Cairn stands proudly on the shoreline. This marks the place where ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ is reputed to have fled to France in 1746 after the Jacobite Rebellion and his defeat at Culloden the previous year. Later, when walking the shoreline of Loch Ailort, I saw another plaque commemorating the ‘Seven Men of Moidart’ who had landed with the Prince at the start of the rebellion.
A variety of overnight stops in the Victory Van have been enjoyed this week in remote parts of Moidart, and Sunart. We’ve overlooked a valley, shared a hill with sheep, spent the night by a level crossing, slept by a loch, snoozed by a cemetery and nodded off by a fish farm at Inverailort! It was here that we learned the fish farm imports its eggs from Norway for hatching. The salmon are then taken to pens at sea until they are big enough to be collected by special ships and taken to Mallaig’s processing plant.
Prior to being a fish farm this site at Inverailort had been the very first Commando Training Centre during WW2. The unit had trained many nationalities in commando techniques, had housed an Intelligence unit and was supported by a detachment of Wrens. Who’d have thought that a place for teaching commando skills would end up as a place for teaching fish to swim!
Heading further south, the shores of Loch Shiel were followed by those of Loch Moidart, with its ruined Castle Tioram built on a beautiful tiny island. By way of contrast, I found the bare peat bogs of Kentra Moss rather gloomy. A huge open expanse, ringed by mountains and hills on all sides, it resembled nothing I’d seen before. It led me towards the flats of Kentra Bay where sheep lazily grazed on this vast expanse of marshland.
I finally began the long walk out to Ardnamurchan Point, the most westerly point of UK mainland, by initially following Loch Sunart’s shores. To begin with I passed through the ancient oak woods of Sunart. As much as I love trees, I found them overbearing, forming a gloomy green tunnel ahead of me. I was glad to emerge on the remote Ardnamurchan peninsula into open country.
The highlights of the week came when I rounded a series of ‘S’ bends, saw the Ardnamurchan lighthouse at the UK mainland’s most westerly tip, and clocked 2,700 miles all at once! I made it just in time to celebrate with tea and cakes (and an unexpected £20 donation) before the lighthouse café closed.
See Photo Album Numbers 45 – Funnies of the Week; Radio Interview with Hal Stewart of BFBS; Way out West
Spring-Boarding From Skye
Quite a memorable week, for all the wrong reasons!
It began with a ‘horror movie’ scenario when I was suddenly swarmed by thousands of midges as I walked towards Loch Torridon. Whilst battling to don my midge net by the roadside, I could feel the devils in my ears, on my face and up my nose. It wasn’t pleasant. Passing traffic must have wondered if a woman in a high viz vest had gone mad as I thrashed about in all directions!
The battle had ceased by the time I reached Loch Torridon, where a magnificent view of the Loch presented itself before I began the afternoon’s dead-end walk. Initially at sea loch level, a nine-mile narrow switchback road, with fearsome climbs and dives, finished back at sea level in the remote settlement of Little Diabaig. That night we stayed by its small harbour, both wondering if the Victory Van would make it up the village’s steep hill next morning. Thankfully it did.
I was returned to Torridon in our Van, from where I kitted-out in full waterproofs before heading-off in another direction. An easy first mile lured me into a false sense of security before I rounded a bend and saw another ‘teeth-gritter’ hill zig-zagging upwards ahead of me. This and wet, windy weather became the pattern of my walking week, only lightened by my clocking 2,500 miles at Applecross. From Applecross I took another dead-end route south to Toscaig. This tiny hamlet seemed desolate and lacking purpose, having lost its ferry service to Kyle of Lochalsh some years ago.
Incredibly, walking to dead-ends has proved to be more memorable than going over the high historic ‘Pass of the Cattle’ (Bealach na Ba), which rises steeply from Applecross over to Loch Kishorn. As Scotland’s third highest road, I’d been looking forward to seeing far-reaching views from its 2,054ft summit. It took exactly two hours of constant grinding uphill in strong cross winds, mist and driving rain to reach the summit’s viewing platform. Once there, I could barely stand upright in the wind or see more than 10 paces ahead. On the road somewhere below, I knew hairpin bends switched to and fro up severe gradients to the summit – but I saw nothing. I descended the other side feeling slightly aggrieved and without a single photograph!
Some miles further on, the picturesque village of Lochcarron lies beside a sea loch bearing the same name. Nearby a ferry used to run across its waters to a place called Strome Ferry, but services were withdrawn after a new road was built. This was bad news for the Victory Walker, as it required eleven miles of main road walking, watching out for fast moving traffic and tackling more hills. At times the road ran parallel to Loch Carron and the Kyle of Lochalsh railway line. Both the rail and road routes were constructed at the base of sheer rock faces, and I was made conscious of potential rock falls by many warning notices and having to walk through an avalanche shelter. When I got to Strome Ferry we were lucky enough to park overnight near the old jetty, beside Strome’s small railway station.
The following morning I set off, first for Plockton – a pretty holiday destination – and then on to the town of Kyle of Lochalsh. Famous for its links to Skye, originally by ferry and now by bridge, we had decided to revise my route and cross over to Skye.
In Scotland, sticking as close to the coast as possible is proving to be a logistical jigsaw puzzle. For those who have been following the blue line on the Victory Walker’s map (http://victorywalk.uk/index.php/follow-the-route) it is clear I’ve not been able to reach all parts of the coast. This is either because they are inaccessible, or potentially dangerous for a lone walker. Common sense and safety must prevail. Therefore, we will use Skye as a springboard, to get me past large parts of inaccessible mainland coastline and avoid lengthy inland detours on main roads.
Fortunately, I was blessed with fine weather and clear views from Skye Bridge when I crossed onto Skye, before heading towards the tiny hamlet of Kylerhea. Another dramatic walk took me down to the shores of Kyle Rhea and the Sound of Sleat, where I caught the unique Kylerhea Ferry back to the mainland. Vehicles drive from a slipway up onto a turntable, which in turn is swung round and aligned with the flat motorised barge underneath. This ferry is now the only one in the world that still makes use of a manually operated turntable.
Once back on the mainland at Glenelg I picked up my walk again and did my final dead-end walk of the week to Corran, just beyond Arnisdale. Dwarfed by mountains, both tiny settlements are reached at the end of another steep and twisty ten-mile road. These seemed even further removed from civilisation than the other dead-end destinations I’d already visited. Accessible only by sea or via the roads described, these tiny hamlets miles from civilisation are a complete puzzle. I’m always left wondering what convinced the original settlers to build houses there in the first place!
High points of the week have been seeing two statuesque stags in classical pose on a high heather covered bank, and the spontaneous kindness of people who have knocked on the Van door to give us generous donations.
See Photo Album Numbers 44 – A Stiff Climb En Route to Diabaig; ‘Spring-Boarding From Skye
‘Loching’ In to Naval History
It’s been a week of dramatic skies displaying clouds of all sizes, shapes and colours, ranging from deep purple to fluffy white. Some have hung over the peaks like wafting bonfire smoke, while others have made the mountains look like gently simmering volcanoes. Many of the bruisingly-dark clouds could not contain their rain any longer, releasing squally deluges in my path. Others have dazzled in bright sunshine or turned golden in the rays of a setting sun.
Arriving at Aultbea on the shore of Loch Ewe I was immediately struck by the tranquillity which would have been at complete odds with significant naval events there 77 years ago. Today, that episode is recalled in the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum which I visited. It naturally concentrates on the bravery and fortitude of sailors from both the Royal and Merchant Navies who bravely sailed the 2,500 mile Arctic Ocean convoy route. Their job was to resupply Russia (who was fighting off Germany) by delivering all manner of provisions and munitions to the northern Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel.
Being a sheltered deep-water sea loch which links to the Atlantic Ocean and is also close to the Arctic Ocean, Loch Ewe was a natural choice to base the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet: from here the ships could make a quick departure in either direction. With its tiered levels of sea and air defences, the Loch also provided protection for merchant ship convoys that assembled here, together with their naval escorts.
By 1941 HMS Helican, a shore establishment, was commissioned at Aultbea and the Royal Navy, supported by the other Services, moved into the town and its surrounding areas. Remains of that era can still be seen. Aultbea Hall, built in 1941 to serve as a cinema and recreational facility for the servicemen and women, still exists and is used as a cinema today. A little further out at Mellon Charles, a large depot was created for the maintenance of the submarine boom defences that were laid across the Loch: some of the boom net anchors remain visible. Here ‘Wrens’ were employed to repair the anti-submarine net hoops.
On my walk down the Loch’s eastern side to Poolewe, I passed the refuelling jetty which continues to be used by British and NATO ships. I also spotted the place where barrage balloons had once been tethered to deter German bombers. Heading up the other side of Loch Ewe I noticed traces of anti-aircraft emplacements at Firepower Bay and found remains of some coastal gun batteries at the Memorial headland. Here, the Russian Arctic Convoy Memorial commemorates all those sailors, over 3,000 of them, who sailed from the Loch but never returned to home shores. Their terrifying deaths in those icy Arctic waters are unimaginable to me.
For the quiet and remote crofting community, the arrival of such an enormous influx of military personnel in the Loch Ewe area must have been daunting, almost intimidating at the outset. The Forces outnumbered the local crofters by 3-1, but everyone soon adapted. During an awful winter storm on 25 Feb 1944, it was crofters who initially went to the aid of the few survivors thrown onto rocks from the Liberty Ship SS William H Welch, wrecked close to Loch Ewe’s entrance.
Following Loch Ewe the shores of Loch Gairloch were my next destination. Gairloch itself is another small village which provides for the more remote hamlets on its peninsula. At the furthest point the Rubha Reidh (meaning Smooth Point) lighthouse rests a little above sea level on rocks that slope gently to the sea. It was built in 1912 and like so many other lighthouses, all the building materials were brought in via sea, after a small jetty had been constructed nearby. Scotland's lighthouses owe much to the design and engineering skills of the Stevenson family; the designer of Rubha Reidh light, David Alan Stevenson, was from the fourth generation of Stevensons. Automated in 1989, the Lighthouse’s original Fresnal lens together with fog horn are now on display at Gairloch Museum.
Gairloch’s other shore took me through equally remote settlements which included Shieldaig, Badachro, Opinan and Redpoint. Out to sea were the coastlines of Skye and its distant neighbour Lewis. Sometimes, the only clue to there being a hamlet ahead is a line of telephone or electricity poles planted across the secluded landscape. As bus services are non-existent, these isolated places, once self-sufficient, now require all inhabitants to own a car or a good pair of walking boots. I for one can vouch for the walking distance to their nearest village store!
See Photo Album No 43 – ‘Loching’ In to Naval History
Mountains, Mist, and Midges
Shortly after Lochinver I crossed back into Ross and Cromarty making my way towards the Coigach peninsula. Full of tough hills through which narrow roads wind, I walked from one small settlement to the next, passing through Achnahaird and Reiff to name just two. Looking seawards the panorama of the Summer Isles unfolded before me. This archipelago consists of approximately 18 islands, with only the largest, Tanera Mor, inhabited on a regular basis.
Continuing down the shoreline to Achiltibuie, I took what is referred to as ‘the postie’ cross-country route around the coast to Ullapool. Apparently this eleven-mile route had also been previously used by school children of secondary age: they would depart on foot on Sunday afternoon to arrive in Ullapool much later that evening. Here they would stay in arranged accommodation, attend school until Friday and then tackle the return walk home for the weekend.
I was fortunate enough to walk this route (now waymarked in places) on a clear, bright day with glorious views out to the Summer Isles and ahead to Ardmair and Loch Broom. The path was far from clear, with heather and ferns concealing much of the way. In many places the trail made use of stream beds or the numerous rocks and boulders that were strewn before me, with their ledges providing irregular footpath steps. Being a very hot day, and having recently seen a small adder, I was careful when pulling myself up onto the warm rocks and mindful of my steps into dense undergrowth. In some areas one wrong step or a trip could have been a disaster with a sheer drop to rocks and sea below. There were many boggy areas too which, in wetter conditions, would have made for miserable walking. If this was a route for postmen and school children, they must have bred ‘em tough in those days!
Ullapool in Easter Ross was humming with tourists and visitors. A cruise ship, Oceania Marina, was anchored-off and the ship’s tenders were doing a brisk trade ferrying passengers to and fro. Ashore, a queue of coaches took the ship’s visitors to various nearby landmarks and sights. With over 1,000 passengers disembarking, local coach companies were kept busy - I could vouch for this as I met many on my unpleasant main road walk away from Ullapool down the shores of Loch Broom. Unfortunately, the little ferry that used to run across Loch Broom is no longer in operation, so for me it was a long trek round before I headed over the hills to Little Loch Broom and the Dundonnell Estate.
This 33,000-acre estate and its three storey mansion was once owned by the Mackenzie clan, but since 1998 has been owned by the lyricist, Sir Tim Rice. It’s an impressive place reached via a narrow stone bridge which the Victory Van driver did well to negotiate. The area is towered over by An Teallach (The Forge) mountain rising to over 3,400 ft. This dwarfed me as I walked along the main road beside Little Loch Broom heading for another string of villages, including one charmingly named Durnamuck! Regrettably, heavy rain and low cloud marred all the best views.
After the recent heatwave, heavy rain has descended on the Victory Walker for the latter part of the week. Because of this, streams, rivers and waterfalls have suddenly sprung into life again, cascading spectacular volumes of water towards the sea. Meanwhile the humid weather has brought the midges out with a vengeance. Changing my walking speed, weaving an evasive course, swatting them with my stick and shouting at them has done nothing to deter the little blighters. What I need is a cunning plan!
See Photo Album No 42 – Mountains, Mist and Midges
Following my tendon injury, I returned to walking with some trepidation: help would not be available at Cape Wrath if anything were to happen.
I took the small ferry boat across the Kyle of Durness before disembarking and starting the eleven-mile walk up to Cape Wrath and its lighthouse. What remains of the road built by the Northern Lighthouse Board (Scotland’s equivalent of Trinity House), now resembles a pot-holed track with patches of old tarmac. Probably the things that have survived best is one of the original narrow bridges constructed for horse and cart, and eleven granite mile markers, each with a number etched into it. As I made my way across barren moorland, punctuated with the odd loch, these milestones counted me down to mainland Britain’s most north-westerly headland.
Along the way I passed just three isolated cottages and a further one adapted for Ministry of Defence use. Since 1933 Cape Wrath has been used as a naval gunnery and aerial bombardment live firing range - thankfully no red flags were flying on the day I made my gradual climb towards the Cape. My only company was a large herd of deer seen silhouetted on the nearby skyline.
On reaching the lighthouse built in 1828, I could see that a large settlement once existed there. Vast walled gardens surrounded the Light where keepers’ families would have grown their vegetables and kept their own chickens and animals. Automation saw the lighthouse community depart: today the permanent population of the Cape is two, a father and daughter, who run the small café and bunkhouse at the lighthouse. I saw the area on a relatively calm day so was able to venture to the cliff edge, look back east, before turning and making my way south over open, untracked, rough moorland towards Sandwood Bay.
At times the going was tough, bog-hopping, clambering in and out of peaty stream beds and wading through high rain-soaked grass. I knew I’d also have to cross several streams and two rivers, and after heavy rainfall two nights previously I anticipated getting my wet feet. On a couple of occasions, it was a case of finding the safest place to wade across, using my walking pole to balance and counter the strong currents.
Eventually Sandwood Bay came into view – a welcome sight of a sandy beach backed by a loch and sand dunes. From the south it is only accessible on foot along a four-mile rough track across peat and heather. Regularly used by wild campers, Sandwood’s unspoilt nature owes much to its remoteness. Having emptied my boots and wrung out my socks for the third time, I took that track south to Blairmore. Thankfully, I’d survived the walk without any further injuries.
On entering the fishing port of Kinlochbervie we found ourselves mingling once again with North Coast 500 tourists. My route kept me with the NC500 through Rhiconich, Laxford Bridge, the Tarbet peninsula, Scourie and alongside the magnificent Loch a’ Chairn Bhain (often referred to as Loch Cairnbawn). At Kylesku I discovered the futuristic road bridge opened in 1984 by HM the Queen; before this bridge was constructed drivers followed a long circuitous route that involved the use of a small car ferry.
Kylesku also has a naval connection, recorded on a small memorial cairn sited in the bridge viewing car park. During 1943 crews of two-man chariots (human torpedoes) and four-man X-Boats (midget submarines) trained in the nearby loch. The midget submarines of the 12th Flotilla then went on to attack the German battleship Tirpitz hiding in a Norwegian fiord.
Joining the coast route heading for Lochinver, I entered an area referred to as Assynt country. Scotland is a geologist’s dream: its entire landscape has been shaped by glacial effect. Above me, I’ve seen high rocky ridges decorated with huge boulders which, on the skyline, look like large beads widely spaced on a necklace. Known as glacial erratics, these boulders were deposited there by glaciers as they slowly melted and ground their way seawards about 25,000 years ago. Everywhere I look there are mountains, rocks and lochs of all shapes and sizes, with many of the lochs having marvellous displays of flowering water lilies.
The landscape certainly influenced the way roads were initially built, following routes that meandered, circled mountains and entered valleys. More recently, it’s clear that engineers have just blasted their way through obstructions, but that doesn’t mean Scotland has been ‘levelled’! The dramatic scenery has put my heart, lung and leg muscles to the test many times this week. Coupled with soaring temperatures it has made walking exhausting, but an end of day sea dip has helped keep my cool!
See Photo Album No 41 – Striking South
Living the ‘High’ Life
Before my tendon injury ‘grounded’ me for a few days at Sango Sands, Durness, I was reminded of my childhood in rural Devon as I travelled through the northern Highlands.
Small communities residing in remote villages and hamlets make a modest living from a variety of occupations. Some residents have more than one job out of necessity, others out of choice. It is also clear that a growing number have moved here to experience a less frenetic pace, seeking out ‘the Good Life’. Inevitably this comes with some drawbacks too.
Without large retail parks, petrol filling stations and department stores, residents rely much more on their local village shops. The nearest supermarkets back at Thurso entail a lengthy, wriggly drive and as yet do not offer their on-line shopping facility. Therefore, the general stores scattered across the area provide an all-round service, and although more expensive than chain stores and outlets, local inhabitants are prepared to pay for this service. Internet shopping (which wasn’t around in my childhood!) fills the gaps for larger household goods, and book readers benefit from a travelling library that runs on a three weekly cycle.
Another drawback is that of public transport provision, which is minimal or nil. Owning your own vehicle is essential, but fuel is noticeably more expensive. Most of the general stores sell fuel from 2 pumps sited outside the shop. Interestingly, I’ve seen more electric fuel points than on any other part of my journey. Scotland is already looking to the future and must also make provision for the many drivers undertaking the North and West Highland Tourist route.
Communication of any form is definitely more uncertain. Phone masts have appeared on some of the high summits, but that doesn’t guarantee a signal when down at Lochside level. The once familiar red phone boxes seen in England still regularly appear in the Highlands, some now faded and others are damaged and partly obscured by nearby vegetation. It’s a bit of a lottery as to whether they are still meant to be working. Investigations have shown that some are disconnected, but confusingly the handset remains! In others there is a dialling tone because local residents have fought to maintain a service with the outside world. Use of the internet is widespread, although broadband width and speed are reported to be noticeably slower.
Huge swathes of moorland are given over to sheep farming. I met an elderly man who told me he was a shepherd and had spent the past winter looking after a flock of 1,700. At the other end of the spectrum there are still many people managing smallholdings; a traditional croft homestead would have been about 8 acres, but this is no longer economically viable so holdings have increased in size to at least 20 acres. Much of the land is hard to till but owners make a living by keeping a few sheep, chickens, pigs or goats, for example. Some grow potatoes and the harvesting of peat is a regular sight. Cut in June, the peat blocks are left drying in stacks and are still widely used as a natural fuel source during the winter months.
Walking through some of the more remote settlements I am always struck by the well-maintained war memorials each with its long list of local men who never returned. Often erected alongside the local church or chapel, it is now distressing to see so many closed or condemned places of worship. Speaking to local residents it is evident that some worry about what will happen to their war memorial when the local church is sold off.
Many of the local men who failed to return after the Wars were either involved in farming or fishing. Today, most of the tiny village slipways or harbours are not used for fishing. For the few that do still go out to fish, their method of sale and distribution has changed. I encountered the mobile fish van which, unlike the ice cream van that plays ‘Frosty the Snowman’, the mobile fish shop’s rendition was ‘When the Boat Comes In’. As a child I remember old Mr Lobb delivering fish to our door but without any musical accompaniment!
Without doubt, one of the mobile fish van’s customers in Kirtomy will be the local doctor. By day he runs his surgery, by night he has diversified and runs an upmarket restaurant from his house for three nights a week. The house is the old village school where a maximum of 8 diners enjoy their meal seated in what was once the main classroom!
The doctor is not the only person who has diversified in response to changing demands. Evidence of a village’s reduced bus service is in the clever re-use of its bus shelter. It now serves as a greenhouse (plants for sale), and a shop window for the sale of locally produced wooden chairs and craft items! On the Kyle of Tongue estuary I noticed a large oyster farm where I was told that initial cultivation takes place before they are shipped over to France. Meanwhile, on the shores of Loch Eriboll I spied a large ceramics studio where a potter has built a pottery and sells, among other things, vast glazed balls to the passing public!
Tourists, particularly those undertaking the North Coast 500 circular road route from Inverness, have also helped boost new business opportunities. The obvious ones have been wayside cafes, pubs, new B & Bs, campsites, and bicycle repair facilities. One of the more adventurous enterprises that caught my eye was the Zip Wire Experience placed across a beautiful sandy bay. At £12 per head how can anyone refuse to be zipped!
See Photo Album No 40 - Living the 'High' Life
Plotting, Planning and Plodding
Our planning break in Thurso proved to be anything but restful. A fun fair making its annual visit to the town encouraged the inevitable high-pitched screams of excitement and fear, competing with thumping music that boomed across the harbour. This nocturnal scene was completed by local tearaway drivers roaring around the town until well after midnight, as if they were competing in the Monte Carlo rally.
By day, we laid out batches of Ordnance Survey Explorer maps on the Sea Cadets’ drill deck. Complicated by many of the maps being double-sided, we gradually plotted a route for me and identified intercepting points for the Victory Van. In all, we worked our way through 46 maps, with the route seeing us to Gretna Green, close to our Scottish exit point. This detailed process is now being finalised by the Support Team (of 1) who will break the planned route into walking weeks, overlain with rest, laundry and refuelling points. Once complete, this becomes the schedule we will follow to get us to England’s border.
Walking out of Thurso I noted a road sign which read “North and West Highlands Tourist Route - 150 miles to Ullapool”. I wondered how many miles it would take before I’d walk into Ullapool. With no official coastal path I find myself interweaving between main roads, occasional tracks and taking minor roads out to remote dead-end coastal peninsulas. From sea level there have been some tough ascents into magnificent highland scenery where heather is just starting to bloom. The open moorland is often broken by numerous hill lochs and a few tracks. I briefly enjoy the hilltop views before plunging down into the next valley.
As I make my way along Scotland’s ‘roof’ I have become a familiar sight to some of the daily van and lorry drivers who work this highland route. I am now on regular waving terms with Royal Mail, The Far North Bus, Travis Perkins builders’ merchants, Highland Industrial Supplies, and Menzies Distribution who proudly state ‘Blue Vans Mean Business’!
Added to this mix of commuters are many tourists undertaking the North Coast 500 (see below) route by various means, be it in motorhomes, towing caravans, on motorbikes or by the tougher means of cycling. Some of the ‘A’ class roads are not much better than minor roads with passing places so it’s a case of keeping my ears open, eyes peeled and having to make regular hops onto roadside verges. Another class of traveller encountered this week has been salmon fishermen with their long rods carefully attached to car bonnets and trailing over vehicle roofs. Salmon fishing brings in a lot of business to this area of Scotland, although this year’s dry weather is affecting the pursuit.
Entering Sutherland’s remoter parts has also highlighted the contrasts between urban and rural life. We saw our last Tesco and LIDL supermarkets at Thurso: small communities are now serviced by local shops which serve as post office, green grocer, general store, petrol filling station and anything else it needs to be. Peat continues to be widely used as a source of fuel; I’ve passed areas where peat has been cut into blocks and left out drying in peat stacks. With communications being more problematic, red telephone boxes can still be seen scattered across the countryside, and if you are lucky the phones may still have a dialling tone.
As for my progress this week, it began with walking in thick fog and rain – not much good for taking photos! I’ve walked through Scrabster port; observed Dounreay’s decommissioning nuclear power station; re-entered Sutherland - proclaimed as Mackay country; seen the Portskerra drowning memorial; passed a house complete with naval gun from which the ex RN owner fires potatoes; ate lunchtime sandwiches overlooking a fog-bound Farr bay; met salmon fishermen at Bettyhill; observed an oyster farm being worked; marvelled at the Kyle of Tongue causeway, with Kyle Bay one side and mountains on the other; watched the sun set from Coldbackie; wandered through isolated cemeteries where headstones recall successive generations of sheperds and fishermen; visited the deserted beaches of Torrisdale and Achininver; walked both sides of Loch Eriboll, nicknamed Loch ‘orrible by British sailors and famed for the WWII German U-Boat surrender; parked overnight overlooking beautiful Loch ‘orrible before walking into Durness. Here I was surprised to find a memorial to the Liverpudlian Beatle, John Lennon.
It’s been yet another week of complete contrasts and discovering things you can’t envisage when looking at 46 OS maps!
North Coast Route 500
Launched in 2015 to showcase the Highlands, Scotland’s North Coast 500 route which starts and ends at Inverness has surpassed all tourist board expectations. So popular has this become that many locals living along this internationally recognised route, much of it single track, have become tired of NC500 and its traffic.
Having seen a convoy of 20 motorcyclists led by a tour guide, a cavalcade of 10 motorhomes negotiating the twisty roads, and many other touring caravans being pulled around unforgiving corners, I do sympathise with the Highland population. I even feel embarrassed that my working ‘Victory Van’ motorhome has joined this crocodile of transport.
But for all the locals who tolerate NC500, there are many others who have seized a business opportunity. Wayside cafes, pubs, new B & Bs, campsites, bicycle repair facilities, local shops and more have sprung up along the way.
See Photo Album Numbers 39 - North Coast 500; Plotting, Planning and Plodding
‘Training' for a Wedding!
How would you feel if you’d just arrived at John o’ Groats on foot, only to turn around again and travel all the way to west Cornwall, almost to Land’s End? Like the board game, the Victory Walker having clambered all the way up a Ladder from Portsmouth to John o’ Groats, found herself sliding down a huge Snake to Truro and onward to the Lizard!
This was a family wedding we couldn’t miss, and I’d punched through the winds to be sure of reaching Thurso, end of the line, where we’d board the train next morning.
It seemed a good idea to travel over 2 days by train, allowing the walker and support team to rest-up, look out the window, and spy places they had passed through on foot or wheels respectively. As is often the case, theory and practice can be very different.
We arrived in good time at Thurso station for the 0836 train that would take us first to Inverness, for an onward connection to Edinburgh. The journey would take until 1600, which would then allow ‘Auntie Jane’ time to visit a department store in Edinburgh. With only jeans, T-shirt and trainers on the support vehicle, I needed to buy a suitable outfit and some shoes that would fit my enlarged feet. An overnight stop had been booked at Edinburgh before our 10 hour onward journey to deepest Cornwall the following morning.
All was looking good until we realised there was no train at Thurso, no announcements and a notice which read that staff did not start work until 0930. Another precise notice told us that the toilets opened at 0954 daily! There was no indication that a replacement bus service had been provided for our absent train - everyone was left stranded. As it would be another 5 hours before the next train to Inverness, we gathered our belongings and went off in search of a Stagecoach bus.
Two and a half hours later we were on the Inverness bus and I began to think about the type of outfit I needed for a country wedding. Places whistled by, but suddenly the bus ground to a halt at the end of a long queue of stationary traffic. The A9 had been closed in both directions following a very serious road traffic accident. A nearby diversion was soon to be blocked by yet another accident.
Unknown to everyone stuck on the road, a long wait of almost 5 hours in sweltering conditions was ahead of us. People got out of vehicles to stretch their legs, sat in the shade on verges, talked to one another and gratefully received water from a passing Samaritan who cycled by handing out bottles from her rucksack and panniers. The road ran parallel to the railway line and ironically, that later Thurso to Inverness train we could have caught trundled by. All we and other inconvenienced train passengers could do was laugh and wave!
We’d already missed two connections to Edinburgh and were on the verge of missing a third when the long skein of traffic began to grind into first gear. Vital minutes ticked by as our coach driver did his best to get to Inverness station before 1845. We caught it with seconds to spare. Finally, at 2300 we checked into our Edinburgh hotel and the bridegroom’s ‘Auntie’ was still in jeans, T-shirt and trainers!
Next morning our Cornish train pulled away punctually from Edinburgh Waverley at the start of its long Cross-Country route to Penzance. Familiar views and stations flicked by as we clattered south towards our destination. Departing from Brunel’s famous Temple Meads station in Bristol, the Train Manager announced our train would terminate at Plymouth owing to a lack of crew. Groan!
Timetables were hurriedly consulted before we ‘jumped ship’, opting for a First Great Western train which was also bound for Penzance. By now running late for car hire collection, frustrating minutes were spent trying to contact the company with a phone whose signal rose and fell with each cutting and tunnel.
Eventually, with car keys safely handed over at Truro, we set off in failing light through deep Cornish lanes to locate our smart B & B. For me, having been used to a walking speed of 3mph since last October, it was quite novel to be back behind a wheel again! The journey took forever through unfamiliar twisty lanes, seemingly with every place name beginning with the letters Tre. Eventually, at 2230 we arrived at Tregaddra Farm, and the bridegroom’s ‘Auntie’ was still in jeans, T-shirt and trainers!
Next morning there was no time for an outfit shopping trip to Truro. I’d booked myself into a local salon at Helston for a haircut and other beauty treatments with the aim of smartening-up. I had resigned myself to my fate – ‘Auntie Jane’ would attend the wedding in – that’s right – jeans, T-shirt and trainers.
Enter June, owner and Angel of Tregaddra who generously offered to loan me one of her dresses; a choice of outfits magically appeared in our room after breakfast - one was selected. Another guest kindly lent me a pashmina, and another guided me to a local shoe shop where I later bought some blue sandals. Miraculously I was ‘sorted’ and the rest of day was spent having a hot rocks massage. Chilled at last!
The sun shone as we made our way to the little church to witness my nephew Andrew marry Frances. In true wedding tradition ‘Auntie Jane’ attended in something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue’ – and who would have guessed!
Readers will be mightily relieved to know that the return journey was uneventful. We were soon being reunited with the Victory Van that had been given a quiet holiday at ‘Achies’, a 400 year-old croft settlement near Thurso. Our landlord, a veteran Royal Navy submariner, now runs a smallholding where he has geese, ducks, chickens, goats, makes pork sausages and is renovating his many outbuildings. All this in his spare time as he does shift work as well. Who said sailors can’t multi-task?!
Since our return we’ve found somewhere to take a few days break, spread out our many maps and plan how the Victory Walker will attack the frighteningly complicated west coast of Scotland.
Normal (walking) service will resume as soon as possible!
See Photo Album No 38 - 'Training' for a Wedding
Walking to JoG
This has been a momentous week where my walking pole has continued to be wielded as a machete along the Inverness to John o’ Groats (JoG) Trail, when I left Sutherland and entered Caithness. The 147-mile route is not yet officially recognised, financed or maintained, and this became evident when confronted by continual jungle-like conditions. Coupled with extremely strong offshore winds, this has forced me onto roads for quite a few miles this week.
Entering Helmsdale by road, I couldn’t miss the Emigrants’ Memorial dominating the crest of a hill overlooking the harbour. This memorial commemorates crofters from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland who had been affected by the Land Clearance schemes, and subsequently decided to emigrate in search of freedom and a new life. A dark period during the 18th and 19th century in this part of Scotland, the Duke of Sutherland was one such owner who cleared his land of people to create pasture land and introduce large scale sheep farming.
Eviction of entire families was enforced in many glens, including Ousdale, Berriedale, and Strath of Kildonan near Helmsdale. To their credit, the Duke and Duchess planned a ‘new town’ for their tenants at Helmsdale, where they intended to introduce new employment opportunities. Understandably, many families were unhappy at being uprooted. Others were forced to swap their fertile lands for the rough, infertile, sloping land of Badbea, another ‘new village’ perched on remote cliffs near Berriedale: I walked through both. When it became clear to families that they could not make a living from their new circumstances, many took the brave decision to emigrate.
As I gradually made my way towards JoG I passed through many small harbours, each with their own character and story to tell: Dunbeath, overlooked by a grand castle/house on the clifftops, Lybster, tiny Whaligoe with its 300 steps leading to a narrow inlet, Staxigoe with its Fishermen’s Pole (barometer) and Keiss with its old ice house and fishing store. Far larger than all these was Wick harbour, now looking somewhat forlorn – but a special place for me as I clocked 2,000 miles there since leaving Portsmouth.
Although sunshine accompanied me on the last stretch of cliffs towards Duncansby Head, I spent the entire time fighting the wind, desperately trying to remain upright and on land. Its remoteness was beautiful and saw me walking through acres of white cotton grass, mixed with boggy patches; each step sank my boots, but thankfully they always rose again! By the time I reached Duncansby Stacks I was hiking on springy green turf so could stop to admire these incredible rock formations which resembled gigantic Walnut Whips in the sea!
Turning left at Duncansby Lighthouse to head west alongside the Pentland Firth was a notable change of direction: I had begun to walk across the top of Scotland. For the next two miles into JoG, along the cliffs overlooking white sandy beaches and among flocks of sheep, I felt both excitement and trepidation.
Since my last visit to JoG in 2007, when I walked 1,200 miles to Land’s End raising funds for the Poppy Appeal, the area had clearly benefitted from major investment. For me, the disappointment was seeing the iconic signpost, once strictly controlled, now daubed in stickers and looking decidedly tatty. Leaving the signpost again, my feelings of apprehension were no less than last time because I’m now attempting a longer, more complicated and indirect route to Land’s End.
I continued along the shores of the beautiful, but notoriously hazardous Pentland Firth – I can well understand why the Queen Mother so loved her summer residence at the Castle of Mey. Afterwards, my first significant stop was at Dunnet Head. Billed as the most northerly point of the British Mainland, it has superb views across the Firth to the Orkneys but would have been a rather desolate place to be posted to during WWII. The daytime skies were stunning with a complete lack of jet trails, just wild and varied cloud patterns. Being so far north the hours of daylight are disconcerting by southern standards. We watched a large golden sun eventually disappear below the horizon at 2233, and yet it still seemed light! Leaving the Head next morning there were yet more striking cloud patterns which kept me absorbed until I walked into Thurso for an unusual reunion . . .
On my 2007 JoG to Land’s End walk we needed a new teapot and stopped at Thurso supermarket to buy one. A kind and helpful member of staff, Ruth, apologised for a total lack of stock and offered us her own teapot from home - an offer we gladly accepted. Now, eleven years later we made a special point of contacting Ruth and reuniting her with the well-used and long-travelled teapot. She enjoyed the tea-rrific surprise!
See Photo Album Numbers 37 - Walking the JoG Trail at Berriedale; Walking into Keiss; How Was Your Day?; Fighting Offshore Winds at Duncansby Stacks; Interview with BFBS Radio; Walking to JoG
'Hectored' in the Highlands
The Kessock bridge led me out of Inverness, from where I walked onto what is confusingly known as the Black Isle. It’s not an island, but a peninsula of land within the shire of Ross and Cromarty, an area dominated by agriculture and forestry. I plunged into my first wood straight after the bridge crossing, but soon encountered difficulties: the planned route crossed new plantation areas where high, inaccessible deer fencing had been erected.
Path and routing difficulties are a constant problem. I see no point in hacking my way through forest undergrowth, being shredded by swathes of gorse bushes, or wading over slippery green rocks in muddy estuaries. I do my best to keep as close to the coast as possible, but realise that road walking is unavoidable and will probably increase the further north and west I go in Scotland. This week I’ve frequently found myself amongst chest high soaking wet vegetation in full bloom or wading through knee high nettles and thistles.
I’d already planned not to walk the entire Black Isle peninsula, avoiding the needless circle into Dingwall and Invergordon. Instead, I opted to use the seasonal ferry (permitted within my rules) that runs across the mouth of the Cromarty Firth to the village of Nigg Ferry. Capable of carrying only 2 cars, it’s the smallest car ferry in Britain and resembles a landing craft. My ten minute passage in the rain over a grey Cromarty Firth saved me 42 miles of walking, but immediately presented me with a steep hill to climb. Justice!
During both World Wars the Cromarty Firth provided deep and sheltered water. Therefore, in the 1970s Nigg became an obvious choice to construct and maintain drilling platforms when the North Sea oil business was at its height. Today, platforms are still maintained here but the Global Energy Group facility has diversified into the offshore wind farm business too.
That night at Nigg, whilst parked in the shadow of the Ocean Valiant platform, we felt the brunt of Storm Hector. All night the van was struck by savage gusts of wind - we could hear dustbin lids banging, while their contents of cartons, tins and rubbish were being swirled around the car park.
Next morning I saw the storm damage for myself: grass in fields waiting to be mown had been flattened; branches, twigs and leaves lay scattered in roads; gardens and roadside verges were strewn with an array of broken flower heads and damaged bushes. Although I wasn’t walking into a headwind, the dust and grit being churned along the roads and paths required me to wear protective goggles for most of the day.
To reach my next big crossing at Dornoch Firth I went via Tarbat Ness, a remote lighthouse headland. It required many hours of walking below high cliffs and over beaches full of large stones and boulders before ‘I saw the light’! I’d frequently read that I was in an area where dolphins could be seen, but all I saw that day was a mermaid sitting on a rock: a striking bronze statue at Balintore. As I walked to Tarbat point I passed several disused bothies, and apart from encountering grazing sheep I met no one all day. Its seclusion did not disappoint, but with Storm Hector flinging his final squalls, I eventually arrived at blustery Portmahomack utterly drenched.
In an effort to dry off we booked into a campsite for the night. Run by the local vicar, who was everything from Warden to Mr Maintenance, the site generates income which pays for the upkeep of his vast church. I admired his initiative! Other overnight stops this week have included a fishing lake and parking on private driveways.
The heavy showers continued next day as I made my way along the Dornoch Firth to renew my acquaintance with its bridge: I’d not been there since my 2007 John o’ Groats to Land’s End charity walk. It was here in 2007 that I celebrated my first 100 miles heading south. This time, going north, my Victory Walk mileage had just clocked 1,900 miles as I entered the county of Sutherland.
Since then I spent a long, wet day walking the entire perimeter of Loch Fleet before reaching Golspie, a town whose skyline is dominated by the prominent Duke of Sutherland Monument. Later I passed Dunrobin Castle the family seat and home to Clan Sutherland. With its 189 rooms it is a marked contrast to the tiny bothies I passed earlier in the week.
To conclude, I am now in ‘End -to-Ender’ country, with people tackling the Land’s End to John o’ Groats challenge by whatever means takes their fancy. I’ve already met a cyclist who had just completed the journey northbound and a fellow RN sailor who has just begun his southbound walk. But perhaps the ‘End-to-Ender’ facing a much greater challenge than these two is the man I saw today walking northbound with his guide. He is blind.
See Photo Album No 36 - 'Hectored' in the Highlands
The long-haul walking journey between the Firth of Tay (Dundee) and the Moray Firth (Inverness) continued with a repeating theme of airfields along the coastline of Scotland, most of which are now disused. Since leaving Dundee I’d already passed eight and there were more to come this week as I made way to Inverness.
At Spey Bay, the Moray coastal trail uses a pedestrianised railway bridge over the river Spey, a river which is recognised for its excellent salmon and trout fishing. The Spey is also very important for malt whisky production: Speyside is the largest of Scotland’s five key whisky producing areas. This week I passed my first maltings at Burghead (where the grain is converted into malt by soaking it in water) and saw my first distillery at Forres. Typically, I arrived after distillery closing time!
Reaching Forres involved two long days on the Moray trail beside the Firth. On my first day when approaching Lossiemouth, I spent much of the time outside a forest following an uneven pebble and stone track alongside old WW2 fortifications: a mix of pill boxes and anti-tank concrete blocks nicknamed ‘dragons teeth’. It wasn’t until I got much closer to the town that the terrain changed to fine sand. Looking across the beach I saw remains of WWII anti-glider posts embedded in the sand – these were designed to deter enemy aircraft from trying to land on the beach.
Today’s RAF airfield at Lossiemouth was once home to the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, HMS Fulmar, playing a key part in aircraft carrier operations. During the past week I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a former Aircraft Handler, a Weapons Analyst Wren, a Meteorological Wren and a WRNS Secretarial officer, all of whom had fond memories of their time at ‘Lossie’. The Aircraft Handler, Les, now in his mid-80s still regards his time in the Royal Navy as some of the best. Listening to Les reminded me of the RN’s recruiting advertisement ‘Made in the Royal Navy’.
My second walking day to Kinloss was equally long, but this time most of it was done along forest tracks, before emerging to see the vast sweep of Burghead Bay close to the former RAF Kinloss airfield. The Roseisle forest dates back to the 1930s and was formed entirely on sand dunes. The Corsican and Scot pine trees were deliberately planted to help stabalise the dunes - both trees thrive on dry sandy soil. At least the walk was cool, although the pebbled path, mixed with sand and old pine cones proved to be tiring for my feet.
RAF Kinloss ceased flying operations in July 2011 and it was somewhat eerie observing such a large airfield so quiet. Signs still exist where spotters could park and watch aircraft from viewing platforms. By chance I discovered that during WW2 Kinloss had a satellite unit with grass runways at nearby Forres. The satellite unit was developed to ease pressure on Kinloss and by 1941 the separate RAF Forres was opened. Here aircrew were trained on Whitley aircraft, preparing them for front line duties with Bomber Command. During those training years 26 Whitley aircraft were lost, together with 55 lives. The airfield also housed Italian Prisoners of War and subsequently displaced units from the Polish Army lived here for two years.
All that remains are a couple of memorials situated by the busy A96, placed in the garden of a long closed and vandalised Little Chef cafe.
Most of my final approach into Inverness had to be done on roads – some peaceful, others not. As I ‘walked the white kerb line’ on a hot day it seemed the hotter the day, the faster the traffic! Before I left the Moray shores I passed the stunning Fort George, with its panoramic views up and down the Moray Firth. Here I came across another memorial, this time to a WWI airfield where seaplanes from Royal Naval Air Station Fort George had once conducted maritime patrols.
Later, when passing Inverness Airport (once RAF Dalcross), I knew that I’d soon be coming into land myself at Inverness. On arrival I was scheduled to meet the Sea Cadets at Training Ship Briton in South Kessock. It has one of the best views you could wish for - the Moray Firth spanned by the Kessock Bridge - my next crossing point.
See Photo Album No 35 - Into Inverness
Another Corner Turned
In a week when I left the shire of Aberdeen and entered its neighbour Moray, I’ve been stung, pricked, scratched and bitten more times than I can count. Foggy and sultry weather has contributed to armies of assorted flies being out in force on my thistley route. In places, with no clearly defined footpath, I’ve gingerly waded through knee high grass wet with dew, barged through thigh high gorse and felt early morning cobwebs break on my face. Walking has been full of the unexpected, including the Crimond church clock face showing 61 minutes!
Arriving in Peterhead I was just able to see a busy fishing port before the Scottish haar (fog) rolled in and blanketed the harbour within minutes. Fishing has been the repeated theme this week and it’s easy to see why fishing communities are so tightly bound; the sea is their livelihood, but for many also their grave. Referred to as ‘fishers’, life afloat can be dangerous and during the week I stumbled across many memorials.
Where Peterhead can claim it’s the easternmost point of Scotland, Fraserburgh is claimed to be the biggest shellfish port in Europe. Walking into the town one senses that its pulse is driven by fish. Full of fishing vessels of all shapes and sizes, the port has numerous supporting services scattered along the quaysides. The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses is also in Fraserburgh where it proudly boasts the 18th century Kinnaird Head lighthouse - the first to be built on mainland Scotland. It sits on top of Kinnaird Castle, built two centuries earlier.
Fraserburgh marked an important turning point for me: I’m now walking in a westerly direction towards Inverness, before my final push north up to John o’ Groats. Since that Fraserburgh turn I’ve passed through many little fishing villages squeezed between high cliffs and a narrow foreshore. The traditional dwellings in these villages have the same distinctive features. Each is a single storey, squat, stone built ‘hoosie’ with a chimney at both ends, a central front door and a single window left and right: plain and tough with the gable end often facing the sea. All look ready for anything the weather or sea might throw at them.
In one such village, Gardenstown, I was reminded of my Royal Naval Reserve roots when I saw that a Victoria Cross plaque had been laid for Joseph Watt, an RNR skipper, who died in 1917. At another village, Findochty, I noted nearly all the names on the WW1 memorial were followed by RNR (T). The (T) denoted that they had been in the Trawler section of the RNR. These men had joined from fishing villages and served on trawlers fitted out as minesweepers for mine clearance operations. Serving at home and abroad, the section suffered heavy casualties and losses.
A complimentary industry to fishing is that of building and maintaining traditional fishing boats. Today, the order books at boatyards in Macduff and Buckie are all reported to be looking very healthy for the next few years. I saw young apprentices refurbishing various trawlers as I walked through Macduff on an extremely hot afternoon. I was glad to sit at nearby Portsoy’s harbour edge, sampling some of the town’s award-winning ice cream. Later, at Cullen, I could have sampled the famous Cullen Skink (fish soup with a smoked haddock base) but decided the two probably wouldn’t be a good mix for a walker’s stomach!
By now I’d joined the Moray Coastal Trail (50 miles) which will take me closer to Inverness. Along the way at Portgordon I learned that the town’s claim to fame was the capture of three German spies. The story goes that they were landed there in 1940, but only got as far as the railway station before being arrested by the local ‘Bobby’!
It was also at Portgordon that I saw my first signpost pointing to John o’ Groats; what it failed to show was the distance!
See Photo Album Numbers 34 - Another Corner Turned; Something Fishy; Lunch Pit Stop; Above Gordonstown
To the Granite City and Beyond
As the walking week began I was presented with a personal dilemma: when is it the right time to step into my two new pairs of size 9 walking boots? I’ve discovered that as my ‘bootometer’ mileage has increased, so too has my foot size.
The sight of hundreds of seals at Newburgh was definitely the highlight of the week. In bright sunshine, I heard them long before I saw them all lying out on a sand bar. Many more were swimming in the water, black heads bobbing up and down all over the place. Noting the number of mouths to feed I did wonder if the local fish population stood any chance of survival.
Thick sea mist (or haar, as the locals call it) hid a lot from view at the beginning of the week. Entering Montrose was a foggy disappointment, although the hospitality of the local Royal British Legion in hosting us and our vehicle overnight was positively bright. Acts of kindness like this continue on a daily basis: the local shop at Johnshaven helped with battery charging, and at Stonehaven we were given permission by the Harbour Master to park overnight on the quay.
The walk to Stonehaven was an interesting one, first passing the vast Dunnottar castle which stands on an impregnable rock, separated from the mainland by a deep ravine. Further along the path I visited Stonehaven’s unusual war memorial. Of a doric column construction, it sits high above the town’s charming harbour with commanding views out to sea and across to the town’s golf course. Here a fleeing German aircraft once jettisoned an unused bomb over the course leaving a vast crater. It’s still clearly visible between the first and second fairway and is now known as Hitler’s Bunker!
On Stonehaven’s old Pier we noted the first signs of entering an area where the oil industry has played such a prominent role over the years. As part of the teaching facilities provided by a sea survival academy, orange lifeboats hung from davits along the quay. Next day, a little further up the coast I was able to see a vast ‘lifeboat graveyard’, where boats currently not in use out in the oil fields are being maintained and retained for future use.
On reaching Aberdeen, often referred to as ‘the granite city’ I learned that the slump in oil price had had a detrimental effect on Aberdeen and its surrounding areas, but things are beginning to improve as the price begins to creep up again. My walk into Aberdeen gave me fantastic views of the busy docks, more training facilities and the new shipping control centre. What interested me most was the proximity of city centre traffic and pedestrians to the busy port. At street level, churches, office blocks, the city’s traffic and gigantic ships appear to share the same space.
Back on the coast, sporadic footpath markings have meant it’s been a case of keeping a close eye on my map. Along the way I’ve had to use some of the disused railway lines which have been converted to cycle paths and walkways. I have done rough walking, beach walking, road walking and spent some exhausting times going up and down narrow twisty cliff paths, in and out of cliff inlets, many with sheer drops below. The cliff views have been stunning, providing you like heights. In some places, lush new grass hides the route and conceals many rabbit holes. Bunnies are currently out in force!
And finally, I did decide to step into my new size 9 walking boots and am pleased to report that they are a success. I’m considering taking bets on what size my boots might be when I complete the walk. I’m also wondering what to do with 5 pairs of partly used (size 8 ½) boots. Ideas on a post card please!
See Photo Album No 33 - To the Granite City and Beyond
Aiming at Arbroath
The weather could not have been better as I continued along the Fife coastal path, heading towards Dundee. Having cleared Fife’s former industrial areas I’d been promised that beautiful scenery would follow along the northern side of the Forth. I wasn’t disappointed. I was also able to enjoy some good ‘look back’ views of the opposite shore seeing where I’d previously tramped.
My coastal route led me through some charming old towns and villages, each with their distinct character. They included, Lower Largo, Elie, Earlsferry, St Monans, Pittenweem, Anstruther and Crail. When I got to Lower Largo Robinson Crusoe was the last thing on my mind. However, I discovered that this was the birthplace of Alexander Selkirk whose experiences as a shipwrecked sailor inspired the fictional story of Robinson Crusoe.
At Anstruther Easter I saw the unusual sight of someone’s weekly wash hung on poles down by the harbourside. Knowing that Crail once had a large naval air station, HMS Jackdaw, I decided to visit the local church. Here I found a beautifully maintained churchyard within which was a small Commonwealth War Graves section where some of the headstones appear to have been renewed, including one for a 21 year old Wren killed in July 1942.
Walking towards St Andrews I was struck by the amazing rock structures that line the beaches or sit near cliff edges. The cliffs remain ablaze with golden gorse, while bluebells paved the wooded areas I walked through. Named after Scotland’s patron saint, St Andrews itself was busy with tourists being shown the ruins of the ancient cathedral and castle. Internationally recognised as the home of golf, I watched a group of Americans being given a guided tour, and at the same time observed a nearby disclaimer notice about being hit by stray golf balls!
I’ve continued to walk past numerous golf courses, occasionally finding a golf ball mis-hit by its owner. Further north at Carnoustie’s historic championship golf course, preparations are seemingly well advanced for the 147th Open which will take place in July where golfers will compete for the iconic Claret Jug.
I advanced towards Dundee via Leuchars (now an Army base) where I made a pit-stop for a mug of coffee from a roadside trailer café, amusingly entitled the ‘Wurst Stop’! Shortly after Leuchars the coastal path enters the vast Tentsmuir Forest, where the nearby dunes offered expansive views of the Firth of Tay and its river mouth. While in the forest I came across an Ice House built in the mid- 1850s and a forerunner of today’s deep freezers. The Ice House was used to preserve locally caught salmon before it was shipped south. To provide additional insulation around the ice, layers of heather and straw helped to keep the ice frozen.
Today, Scotland is famed for its salmon industry, just as the herring industry thrived in the 1900s and is remembered in the Anstruther Wester Fisheries Museum. The Arbroath ‘smokie’ (haddock) industry continues, though it has declined over recent years. Farming is another large industry in Scotland and during the week I’ve walked by vast potato farms and seen acres of new poly tunnels being erected. On looking inside one set of tunnels I realised I was looking at thousands of young strawberry plants – I couldn’t help wondering if their fruits will be seen at Wimbledon in early July!
Leaving the coastal path and county of Fife behind me, I crossed the Firth of Tay into Dundee and entered the county of Angus. Dundee, once famed for its jute, jam and journalism is now probably best known for Captain Scott’s Antartic expedition ship, the Royal Research Ship Discovery which resides in a dock near the Tay bridge. Meanwhile, the 1824 frigate HMS Unicorn can be seen in neighbouring docks and both ships are key visitor attractions in this busy city.
From Dundee, I made my way along the Tay’s shores through Broughty Ferry, Carnoustie and into Arbroath where 45 Commando Royal Marines at Condor Base kindly agreed to host us for an overnight stay. While there we made time to visit the unit’s Remembrance Garden. The Garden is a wonderfully imaginative creation based on the Royal Marines Globe and Laurel badge, with a huge steel globe as the central feature of the design. It also incorporates huge boulders brought home from countries where 45 Commando has served in more recent years: Northern Ireland, Iraq, the Falklands, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Norway.
It’s a peaceful place for quiet contemplation.
See Photo Album No 32 - Aiming at Arbroath
Portsmouth and the Forth Bridge
My last entry in the Victory Walker’s log advised readers that I had arrived in Scotland. Since then little has been heard apart from the repeated question “Where have you been?” As I don’t drink whisky I can assure you I’ve not been on a mammoth tour of distilleries - shortbread factories are more my cup of tea!
One of the naval charities I’m raising funds for (WRNS BT) kindly invited me to their Annual General Meeting where the Trust’s Patron, HRH the Princess Royal, was in attendance. Having worked out the logistics I took some days out to travel back to Portsmouth, to attend in my former capacity as RN lead for the WRNS100 Project Team.
It was a very special day when, in her AGM address, the Princess acknowledged the success of the many celebratory events in 2017, and how the WRNS BT charity amongst others had benefitted from the WRNS100 project’s surplus funds. During the follow-on reception, the WRNS100 project team took the opportunity for a final line-up picture with the Princess Royal: she had also been Patron of this centenary project. Later, knowing that the Victory Walk is raising funds for the WRNS BT (and RNRMC), the Princess asked me how long the walk around Scotland’s wiggly coastline might take. My honest answer was “Ma’am, I haven’t a clue!”
Returning to Scotland I pulled on my boots again at Dunbar in East Lothian, my second Scottish county. Dunbar is the birthplace of the Scottish/American explorer and conservationist, John Muir, often referred to as ‘The Father of National Parks’, so it was fitting that I joined the John Muir Way which would lead me into the Firth of Forth, and up towards its famous crossings at Queensferry.
As always, the sights on this part of the journey were interesting and varied. On my approaches to North Berwick I caught magnificent views of the distinctive Bass Rock. White from the guano left by the hundred of gannets that have made this rock their home, the rock is a well-known sight to mariners. Being a busy Bank Holiday weekend, I fled from North Berwick finding almost deserted beaches as I moved away around the coast.
I lost count of the number of golf courses that I walked by and through, but at Cockenzie and Port Seton learned that Mary Queen of Scots was a regular player on the local links. In more recent times Cockenzie had been home to a huge coal fired electricity power station (recently demolished) with the coal coming from nearby pits. Before use and to improve combustion, the coal had to be ground to a fine powder by means of grinding rings and balls. Today, a ‘ring and ball’ installation on the promenade is the only reminder of the town’s links with the energy industry. Coal had also been used to boil sea-water in large pans to enable salt extraction. Prestonpans was one of the key towns on the Forth to be involved with salt production and as I walked through I noticed a fading seawall mural reminding me of its former industry.
The approaches to Leith gave me distant views of the City of Edinburgh which helped me forget my feet that were weary from road walking. It was interesting to see how the vast Scottish Government building has helped to regenerate the dock area of Leith. Nearby the Ocean Terminal shopping complex, together with the former Royal Yacht Britannia have made this a very popular destination. Later the same day I enjoyed a gentle woodland walk up the River Almond before entering the vast and beautiful Dalmeny Estate, which has glorious views up and down the Firth of Forth.
By now I was eager to turn the Estate’s final headland and see my river crossing. When the moment came I wasn’t disappointed: in the foreground the iconic Forth rail bridge, with the Forth road bridge behind it, and then the new Queensferry Crossing. That night we parked under the old road bridge at the local sea cadet unit, TS Lochinvar, where we had superb views of the Forth with its three crossings, and of Rosyth where the carrier (the Prince of Wales) was clearly visible. It was when walking across the old road bridge next morning that I felt my ‘yomp’ around Scotland had really begun: exciting, but daunting. Being greeted by some Royal Navy well-wishers on the north side helped ease my apprehension before I picked up the Fife Coastal Path (117 miles) which will lead me to my next big crossing, over the River Tay.
Before Dalgety Bay I noticed that another naval reservist well-wisher had hung a white ensign from her window (thank you Anne). Shortly afterwards, near Donibristle Bay I was reminded that this had been a Royal Naval Air Station, HMS Merlin, during both World Wars. The walking week continued in good weather with this part of Fife county showing me its industrial past in its towns such as Burnt Island, Kirkcaldy, Dysart, West and East Wemyss and Buckhaven.
It had been a hard week, with over 100 miles walked, concluding at the sea cadet unit (TS Ajax), in Methil. By now my ‘bootometer’ was reading 1,500 miles and due for a service!
See Photo Album Nos 31 – Portsmouth and the Forth & Crossing the Forth
England into Scotland
At long last, having walked 1,367.5 miles since leaving Portsmouth, I crossed the border into Scotland at 1220 on Sunday 29 April: it was a day that I often felt would never come!
By now, walking the Berwickshire Coastal Path, I was blessed with glorious weather in the Borders, with sweet smelling gorse and fantastic scenery that has changed dramatically since my last Victory Log entry written in County Durham. Here I moved from a coal mining area to the rivers Wear and Tyne, once both famed for their shipbuilding yards. The Wear alone used to have over a dozen yards and the Tyne yards had produced many famous ships, including RMS Carpathia whose crew picked up survivors from the RMS Titanic disaster, including my great aunt Edith. Arriving at South Shields I enjoyed a brief bit of sea time aboard the ‘Pride of the Tyne’ as I crossed to the north side of the Tyne, where a huge monument of Admiral Collingwood dominates the skyline.
I entered Northumberland shortly after passing the lighthouse island of St Mary’s and almost immediately noticed another change of scenery. By the time I met up with members of the Association of Wrens, Tyne branch, in Druridge Bay, I’d joined the Northumberland Coast Path. The route offers 64 miles of magnificent landscape: long, sweeping deserted sandy beaches, caves, tiny fishing harbours, stunning rock formations, secluded coves and clear blue seas.
Offshore lie the Farne Islands, a sanctuary for sea birds and seals, and the famous Holy Island of Lindisfarne – a tidal island linked to the mainland by a causeway. Despite a multitude of warning signs about tide times, I noticed a car stuck on the causeway with an incoming tide lapping around the top of its wheels. Presumably its occupants were sheltering in the ‘house on stilts’ making up a convincing story for their insurance company!
The beauty of Northumberland is complimented by many old castles perched on vantage points, and perhaps one of the most majestic is Bamburgh. Its pink stone walls and battlements tower over the small village in which a memorial to Grace Darling can be found in the peaceful churchyard of St Aidan’s. A lighthouse keeper’s daughter, Grace became a national heroine in 1838 after she and her father rowed out to rescue the crew of the paddle steamer Forfarshire.
Although the origins of golf reputedly come from Scotland, Northumberland must have caught the habit too. I walked by at least ten courses and we were also fortunate enough to park-up at a couple of clubs overnight where we enjoyed uninterrupted sleep and good seats for watching early morning play.
Over the centuries beautiful Berwick-upon-Tweed has passed back and forth between England and Scotland, but today it is England’s most northerly town. Crossing the river Tweed on its oldest bridge dating from 1635, I was able to get good views of the town’s two other bridges – the road bridge and the impressive railway bridge with its 28 arches, designed by Robert Stephenson. This was an exciting crossing for me because I knew I was at last within striking distance of the Scottish border.
Victory Log despatches are never guaranteed, and the past week was no exception. When planning a ‘rest day’, we must assume that both a wi-fi and mobile phone signal will be available. Our gambler’s luck ran out last week. Not only did we find it almost impossible to communicate with one another during the day, on our ‘rest day’ stopover we were presented with a set of blank screens!
There’s not much you can do with a blank screen, so we chose to go to the laundrette instead!
See Photo Album No 30 – England into Scotland
Industry and Heritage of the North East
This has been a week of complete contrasts defined by engineering excellence, industrialisation, mining, regeneration and charming little fishing ports clinging to cliff edges.
South of the river Tees along the coastal fringe I’ve witnessed the remains of various mining industries. Alum (used in textile manufacture and tanning), was extensively mined, as was ironstone and jet. Whitby is still famed for its jet gemstone, often regarded as the jewellery of mourners.
I walked into Whitby on a chilly foggy evening. The Abbey remains looked decided ghostly as I walked down the 199 steep steps into the town. It was easy to see how Bram Stoker had gained inspiration for his Dracula novel from this town.
Bright sunshine was with me when I climbed up Boulby Cliffs, at 213 metres it's the highest point on England’s Eastern coast. From this lofty spot I had excellent views back towards several pretty fishing harbours such as Robin Hood’s Bay, Runswick Bay and Staithes.
At Saltburn-by-the-Sea I parted company with the Cleveland Way as it veered inland. Saltburn’s fortunes had been built on the iron trade where it boasted the first iron pier on the north east coast; both this and its renowned cliff railway still exist. From there I walked on to Redcar, known for its expansive beach and race course.
Leaving Redcar’s beach behind me I spent a depressing afternoon walking the first few miles of the Teesdale Way. The Way runs parallel to ancient looking pipelines and railway tracks, channelling me through a corridor of security fences, brambles and rubbish. The sad sight of decaying industries was everywhere. The steelworks on Teeside, between Redcar and Middlesbrough looked forlorn and dejected, its glorious Sydney Harbour Bridge production days long forgotten. Teesport, once used for raw material imports and steel exports has only survived by moving to the container industry.
Arriving in Middlesbrough I was dismayed to see that the historic Tees Transporter Bridge, on which I hoped to cross the River Tees into County Durham, was closed because of high winds. I’d a sleepless night parked-up in the Teessaurus Park wondering if I’d get across the next morning. For once, luck was on my side and I crossed the River Tees on this engineering masterpiece in the Transporter’s gondola. This saved me a six mile walk – yippee!
En route for Hartlepool I took time out in Seaton Carew to enjoy the atmosphere and food of Gladys’ Vintage Tea Rooms. It’s a unique spot themed on WWII, with memorabilia, military photos, and Vera Lynn as background music. Even the toilet is called the (air raid) Shelter and is decked out accordingly!
Long before I reached Hartlepool’s old shipbuilding centre I could see the three masts of HMS Trincomalee poking above the skyline of buildings. She is the oldest naval ship still afloat, something that the older HMS Victory cannot claim! While wandering around the marina area it was good to see one of the Royal Navy’s younger ships, HMS Example bobbing at her berth and I had the good fortune to bump into her friendly CO and crew.
Durham Coastal Path (12 miles) took me along the cliffs through an area that has been transformed. From closed collieries, slag heaps and beaches once covered in filthy colliery waste, the area is now badged as the Durham Heritage Coast and has won many awards. I never knew it as it was before, but talking to local people I’m struck by how proud they are of their mining heritage, and the regeneration that has taken place since the coal mines closed.
Bright sunshine at the end of the week brought my shorts out for their first airing since the walk began. White legs soon became strawberry pink!
See Photo Album No 29 – Industry and Heritage of the North East
Yomping in Yorkshire
The week began at the fascinating Spurn Point and ended in Scarborough with a birthday celebration. In between, it’s been a demanding and hazardous walking week for me, either on roads or on extremely muddy, slippery and dangerously eroded paths, often groping through a blanket of fog.
Favourable tides at Spurn Point gave me a chance to visit this iconic Yorkshire landmark. Following the severe storm and tidal surge of 2013, the 3.5 mile peninsula was breached, and Britain’s newest tidal island was formed. Just walking the central ‘washover’ section makes one realise the importance and vulnerability of this spit of land. Regular signs warn visitors to check tide times, and for those that miscalculate a ‘safe hut’ is provided.
Militarily, Spurn has been a vital point of defence for centuries and many of the WWII coastal artillery remains are still visible. For birdwatchers, Spurn is famed for the vast number of migrating birds passing through each spring and autumn. Commercially, the Vessel Traffic Services navigational system has operated from here for many years, but with access to the Point becoming increasingly difficult, the facility is being relocated to a new Humber Maritime Control Centre in Grimsby.
Until the 1940s an entire maritime community lived at the Point, served by its own school, pub and full-time RNLI crew. Today, only the isolated lifeboat station and quarters remain operational, but I wonder how much longer this can be sustained.
Back on the mainland, badly eroded cliffs forced me onto nearby roads, where I was only able to hear the roar and tumble of the sea in the distance. Wherever possible I weaved a route in, out, and around the many static caravan parks, but even this proved precarious at times. When at sea level, I walked some of the beaches, many littered with rubbish brought in during severe winter storms. Therefore, it was good to meet a group of local volunteers at Barmston Sands doing sterling work clearing their beach for summer.
At Bridlington, before climbing onto the Headland Way, I noted a plaque stating that in 1890 two Hawaiian princes introduced riding the waves (surfing) to Bridlington and the UK. My Headland route took me to Filey, via Flamborough Head, and its chalky cliffs used by thousands of sea birds. I’d been eagerly looking forward to this walking leg but was let down by very foggy weather.
By now the path regularly rose up and down, and all I could hear was the frequent blasts of the fog horn at Flamborough Lighthouse accompanied by the eerie cry and call of sea birds. Such was the poor visibility, I almost bumped into the fog horn station before realising I’d arrived! Later the fog cleared a little and at Bempton Cliffs it was refreshing to see so many young families making use of the excellent RSPB viewing galleries, puffin watching.
Filey provided the over hungry walker with an excellent fish and chip supper! Next morning I encountered ‘Finlay’, the striking steel sculpture which serves as a reminder that Filey was once one of Yorkshire’s primary fishing ports. Above the town, I joined the Cleveland Way which would lead me to Scarborough, again through very thick fog and along menacingly muddy paths. With conditions hampering progress, I was late for a rendezvous with some veteran Wrens, some of whom were to be found taking refuge in the aptly named ‘Mutiny’ pub! Together, we made our way out onto Lighthouse Pier to the SS Aquila memorial bench. This bench commemorates twelve Scarborough based Wrens who were killed on 19 August 1941 when their ship transporting them (and nine other Wrens) to Gibraltar was torpedoed. My walking conditions had not been good, but the veterans’ drive from York and Cleveland had been much more taxing in the fog, and yet they still reported for duty on time in true WRNS tradition. Well done ladies!
Finally, this walking week has aged me considerably: I began aged 60, but by the end of it was 61. I blame the Yorkshire Yomping!
‘Riding’ Into Yorkshire
An extended mixed week of anticipation, apprehension and aggravation.
Just north of Skegness I chalked up my first 1,000 miles since leaving Portsmouth - it was celebration time. At Cleethorpes I treated myself to my first ice cream since the walk began and crossed the Greenwich Meridian for the fourth time. Later, looking seaward, I saw the mouth of the River Humber encircled by the arm of Spurn Point – my distant goal.
Reality soon returned as I began to think about navigating round the large dock and industrial areas ahead of me – Grimsby, Immingham, Killingholme, New Holland and Hull. And there was also the Humber Bridge crossing to be tackled.
Grimsby proved to be straight forward. A town still proud of its fishing heritage, with Young’s Seafood remaining a key employer, rather like the presence of Bird’s Eye in Lowestoft. However, Grimsby has diversified: leaving the town I saw acres of vehicle storage facilities where thousands of new cars are stored.
Heading north, with coastline access restricted, I weaved in and out of industrial estates passing everything from gas terminals, oil storage depots, power stations and sewage works, to chemical factories and yet more new cars. Incredibly, footpaths still cross some very busy dock areas, where containers pulled by tractors charge up and down, and freight rail lines are still in use. I needed to keep my wits about me and was very relieved to get through this part of the walk.
Hull docks proved to be a different story, where having followed a public footpath, I found myself tangled up in dockland on Easter Sunday on the wrong side of the security perimeter fencing. Resisting the urge to climb over and risk arrest, I phoned the Emergency Security number. I was eventually released by Mr Security who said, ‘Don’t worry lass, this is always happening’!
I eagerly awaited my first sighting of the Humber Bridge – it took a long time owing to heavy rain and swirling low mist. It seemed to take forever before I was standing alongside the strikingly graceful single span suspension bridge. At the time of its opening in 1981 it was the longest of its type in the world – a record retained for 17 years.
I soon discovered I was not the only one crossing the bridge that day: I met hundreds of people taking part in the Hell on the Humber (HOTH) endurance challenge (www.hellonthehumber.com). The lack of views was disappointing, but it was good to ‘tick off’ another county (Lincolnshire) and arrive in Hull, the 2017 City of Culture.
Hull’s strong maritime history is apparent everywhere. Docks have opened and closed. Over the centuries imports have changed; timber for coal mining props has stopped but has now been replaced by components for the offshore windfarm industry. Coal is no longer exported but agricultural machinery exports continue: I noticed a large consignment of John Deere tractors waiting to be shipped out.
The city is also famous for its close-knit fishing community. In this, the 50th anniversary year of the Hull triple trawler tragedy, I was moved to see all the floral tributes that have been placed at the Hull’s Lost Trawlermen Memorial. This is a striking 9ft steel sculpture that commemorates over 6,000 fishermen from Hull who have been lost at sea over the years.
The generation of off-shore energy is increasingly evident around the UK coastline and Hull is a major contributor to this new industry. At Alexandra Dock, the Siemens factory manufactures the massive wind-turbine blades and stores other components. One blade is as long as the entire wingspan of an A380 Airbus aircraft, while the height of a wind-turbine equals one of the Humber Bridge support towers. Given their colossal size, it’s no surprise that one of these ‘windmills’ can generate enough power for 5,000 homes.
Northerly winds in excess of 50mph accompanied by strong snow curtailed this week’s efforts for a couple of days. Walking alone on deserted sea banks, miles from anywhere, and with no guarantee that the Victory Van could retrieve me at the end of the day just didn’t make sense. Even so, here are some of my walking highlights before I depart to the west country for a funeral.
I re-joined the walk at the RSPB Frampton Marsh which, after the fierce weather, had seen much of the marsh freeze over. From there, I cried all the way to Boston as I stumbled along doing battle with the strong headwind. Through my wind-watered eyes the local landmark of the ‘Boston Stump’ came clearly into view: St Botolph’s Church tall thin tower is unmistakable and I had been using it as marker from the time I’d begun to circle The Wash.
Reaching Boston I became aware of an unusually large police presence, blue flashing lights, outriders, and sleek Range Rovers. I’d arrived just too late for an official visit by HRH Prince Charles. The same happened when I walked into Skegness - but the Princess Royal just missed me!
Going down the banks of the River Witham I discovered a memorial, on which I learned of the association between the Pilgrim Fathers and Boston. Their first attempt in 1607 to leave the country in search of religious freedom was thwarted; after being betrayed they were tried by magistrates and imprisoned at Boston.
My walk away from Boston continued, when I too ended up in prison - but only for ten minutes! The footpath took me straight through HM Prison North Sea Camp, an open prison where Lord Jeffrey Archer had once been detained. On arrival at the prison stile I was told to “wait there” and a prison officer would come and escort me through the campus. Ten minutes later I escaped ‘over the other stile’.
As the second largest county in England, everything in Lincolnshire is on a grand scale. Huge blue skies above and flat expansive fields full of crops below, punctuated by countless drainage channels. I’ve seen rows of pickers doing back-breaking work in fields of mud, from cutting broccoli to picking daffodils. Here is the heart of England’s growing industry and it’s where I came across the memorial to John and Dulcie Saul who set up a growing company in 1912. The company now farms over 3,000 acres.
Walking frustrations continue. After a long 15 miler the map indicated a footbridge crossing a creek to my finish point. To my dismay I could see the footbridge had a ten foot gate, adorned with spikes and padlock. Reviewing the map I assessed the detour would be another five miles – something I wasn’t prepared to do. Instead, I managed to dig my boots in the grill, scale the gate, almost tearing the seat of my trousers, before jumping down the other side. Job done and not defeated! Next stop Skegness.
Skegness struck me as a place where visitors do nothing but eat. Everywhere I looked I saw burger huts, ice cream kiosks, coffee stops and hamburger stalls. I stopped long enough to visit the Jolly Sailor landmark, based on the LNER advertising poster ‘Skegness is So Bracing’, before quickly moving on – without a mega coffee, king-size ‘donut’, or bag of chips!
Remembering Nelson and Walking The Wash
After our snow-enforced stop, I rejoined the walk at Sheringham, a small seaside town whose origins stemmed from fishing. Today, it boasts two railway stations, one of which is the North Norfolk Steam Railway, also known as the Poppy Line. It was exhilarating to pound across the town’s golf course, high on the cliffs, looking up the coast towards Hunstanton.
However, those feelings of excitement were short-lived. It wasn’t long before I encountered vast shingle banks. With no way of avoiding them, I plodded on for what seemed an eternity, putting one foot in front of the other. By now the Peddars Way had joined up with the Norfolk Coast Path and I was led past Salthouse Marshes into Cley-Next-the-Sea to see its marvellous early 19th century windmill. Today it’s one of the top places to wine, dine and stay.
The route towards Wells-Next-the-Sea bordered large salt marsh areas, all of which form part of a National Nature Reserve. People festooned with powerful binoculars and carrying vast tripods and cameras were a regular feature of each day. Sand dune walking followed ‘Wells’, before many more miles of marshland. Around Brancaster Bay, the miles of sand stretching out to sea looked as good as the Canaries, but the temperature told me otherwise.
Before completing the leg into Hunstanton, famed for its striped cliffs and westerly views over The Wash, I took the opportunity to visit Burnham Thorpe, birthplace of Admiral Lord Nelson. Although the parsonage where he lived was demolished, the church of All Saints where Nelson’s father was rector still stands. The village is incredibly proud of its association with Nelson and the church is well worth a visit.
While at Hunstanton I looked across The Wash and observed the disappearing coastline heading due north. Neither my eyes nor feet liked what they saw! Until 1969 Hunstanton had a railway linking it with King’s Lynn. As the coast offered no official right of way after Snettisham, I made use of some sections of the old trackbed, to get me closer to ‘Lynn’, as the locals call it. I passed through some peaceful wooded areas, finding myself in Wolferton, once home to Sandringham’s Royal railway station. Today, the properties are in private ownership but all have been authentically preserved.
More private estate walking followed before I once again joined the old rail link that took me into the centre of King’s Lynn. That night was a first for us – we slept in the car park at Morrisons and weren’t required to put a £1 coin in a trolley! Next morning, I joined the (Sir) Peter Scott way, out along the River Great Ouse and towards The Wash where King John is said to have lost some of his crown jewels in 1216.
This major geographical feature is made up of acres of marshland, mudflats and sand that reach miles out to sea. Here lies a vast National Nature Reserve which is fed by the Rivers Nene, Welland and Haven, all of which I’ll walk up and down. On one of my walking days, in complete solitude, I crossed into Lincolnshire.
Adjacent to the Nature Reserve is Holbeach Range, an area of 10,000 acres of marshland used as an air to ground weapons training facility. Red flags fluttered the day I walked through, but I remembered not to cross the raised grassy sea bank. I wasn’t going to allow the RAF to ‘get’ the Royal Navy – and they didn’t!
Crossing Another Border
I walked through a wet and eerily quiet Dunwich, well known for its annual Dunwich Dynamo cycle race, before heading through the tranquil Dunwich Forest. With no foot ferry running from Walberswick, again a final and brief Suffolk river walk up the Blyth, before crossing over on the old Southwold railway track-bed.
Heavy drifting rain accompanied me into Southwold, a genteel north Suffolk seaside town with a model yacht pond, colourful beach huts and working lighthouse perched amongst the town’s older houses. The dignified Pier boasts a fascinating ‘The Under the Pier Show’, - housed in the middle of the Pier - an arcade housing an eccentric collection of weird, clanky mechanical machines. A delight!
At the most easterly point of the British Isles the sun shone as bitter winds brought breakers frothing up and over Ness Point. Nearby, remains of Lowestoft’s earlier sea defences were clear evidence of how the town has been continually battered by the North Sea.
Later, on the same day, I picked up a new sign ‘Norfolk Coast Path’ - my 11 day trip through Suffolk was at an end. After weeks of zig-zagging east and west in Essex and Suffolk, reaching Norfolk signalled the start of being able to walk north – at last an opportunity to make the miles mean something.
Norfolk’s coastal erosion was clear from the outset. Along the sandy cliffs I made my may across Gorleston 18-hole Golf Course, heading towards Great Yarmouth. I’m sure a number of holes will ‘go over the edge’ in the coming year! I crossed the River Yare, walking down Great Yarmouth’s South Quay, the heart of the town’s original port. Today, the port provides support to various offshore industries, most notably wind farms. The impressive Scroby Sands wind farm is clearly visible from the seafront.
From Caister-on-Sea there was a long stint of walking in a valley of sand dunes. Houses and caravans were perched on sandy cliffs overlooking the footpath, while on the seaward side a high hedge of dunes planted with marram grass aims to stem the advance of the sea. Paths criss-cross the desert-like landscape and it’s easy to see how people can become disorientated in sea mist.
At Horsey Gap I was lucky enough to see a colony of 20 grey seals lying outstretched on the sands. They could easily have been mistaken for smooth beach boulders. Further up the coast the wind continued to howl, white spume blew off the sea and the shoreline was thrashed. There have also been many recent cliff-falls. The coastal footpath just simply disappears over the edge, so I’ve followed the guidance of keeping a distance of 5 metres from the threshold.
Our overnight stops continue to be varied. On one, we stopped in a farmyard, only to be woken by a crowing cockerel at 5am. By way of an apology, the owner handed us half a dozen beautifully brown free-range eggs. Another stop was at Trimingham’s iconic Pilgrim Refuge where villagers made us feel extremely welcome with a fundraising evening.
The week ended in Sheringham, where the Victory Walker was hit with a stomach bug and halted by the approaching ‘Beast from the East’!
Rambling Suffolk Rivers
It hasn’t taken me long to learn that Suffolk has nearly as many rivers as Essex and at this time of year the ferries don’t run. Therefore, since arriving in this gentle county I’ve tramped down the banks of the Stour, and up and down all or most of the rivers Orwell, Deben, Butley, Ore and Alde. I should have thought to bring my own kayak with me!
Already I can see contrasts between the Essex and Suffolk landscapes. The countryside is less harsh and remote here. Underfoot, clay mud has been replaced by soil with a high sand content which supports two important industries: pig farming and turf farms. The grassed protective seawall defences continue, but they feel far less remote than those that bordered the Essex marshes. Suffolk has much more woodland and my route has taken me through some tranquil spots along the rivers.
Initially waymarking of the Stour and Orwell walk was poor, but since picking up other routes, namely the Suffolk Coast Path, Arthur Ransome’s (of Swallows and Amazon fame) East Coast Walk, the Sailors’ Path and the Sandlings Walk, it’s clear Suffolk has signage cracked.
My first day of walking in Suffolk weather down the river Stour, was particularly wet and cold.
My consolation was walking past the beautiful Royal Hospital School, Holbrook knowing I’d soon be enjoying a hot shower there later that evening. Although it was half-term the school looked after us well. The sad part of that route was seeing the former HMS Ganges, now looking extremely forlorn and derelict. Previous ‘Button Boys’ could never have envisaged how their mast would be allowed to rot away.
I walked up the Orwell with some trepidation, knowing I’d have to face the Orwell Road Bridge which carries the manic A14 across the river Orwell. It stands 141 ft high and is approximately ¾ of a mile long. Well known for its closure in high winds and a place for suicide jumps, the bridge now has the Samaritans Help Line number regularly indicated along its waist-high parapet. There was a strong wind behind me as I ventured onto the narrow walkway, with only a knee-high crash barrier separating me from the traffic whistling by. This walk is not for the faint hearted or those who dislike heights.
The trip down the other side to Felixstowe was a battle against strong head winds, and chilling rain pellets beat my face senseless. Eventually I reached the perimeter of the fascinating container port, crazily busy with containers being moved at remarkable speed in all directions. I was glad to find refuge in a Truckers’ Café where I thawed over a steaming mug of coffee. Later, I ventured out again to complete the leg into the seaside town with its refurbished pierhead building, but a crumbling pier that’s out of bounds. I was relieved!
From Felixstowe, the walking conditions up the Deben were equally testing, but there was a consolation – I hit 700 miles. Chilled to the marrow by the time I reached Woodbridge, it wasn’t until the next day that I could appreciate this lovely tranquil town. My return trip on the Deben’s opposite bank was far more enjoyable: seeing the sunset as I walked into Bawdsey at the river mouth was a superb end to a tough few days.
I meandered around the Butley river, before passing through Orford and covering a long seawall stretch which led me into the river Alde. My crossing point was up at Snape Maltings and from there it was an easy walk back down the north side of the river into the ancient fishing town of Aldeburgh. The place positively heaved with people - a queue of at least 25 stood outside a fish and chip shop! I fled for the calm of Thorpeness and the striking contrast of Sizewell B Power Station.
Leaving Essex became somewhat of an endurance test. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised because, at 350 miles, Essex has the longest coastline of any of England’s counties. Nor did Essex give up without a fight: yet more cold, wet and muddy walking, making conditions underfoot slow and difficult. Road walking proved hazardous too, with a chipping narrowly missing my right eye. In Clacton-on-Sea I was greeted by snow and ice.
But the weather hasn’t broken the Victory Walker’s spirit. Instead, in this week, the 600 mile barrier was broken and I walked through some delightfully named places: Salcot-cum-Virley, Tolleshunt D’Arcy, Kirby-le-Soken and Fingringhoe.
Ferries proved to be out of vogue at this time of year necessitating many extra riverbank miles. Nothing was officially available from the Ha’Penny Pier at Harwich, (to Shotley or Felixstowe); the kind offers of a special Pilot transfer by Harwich Haven Authority were considered, but politely declined.
With weather affecting schedules I was sad at being unable to spend more time in Harwich, a town full of character. This port was extensively used by the Royal Navy in both World Wars, and our overnight stop was close to NavyYard Wharf. We overlooked the Pilot boats’ dock area, and judging by the throbbing engines heard they are kept busy both night and day.
Next morning, I walked past the MN Memorial, the HQ of Trinity House and spied the separate Trinity House storage depot – full of ‘big buoys’! Yet another former Trinity light vessel (LV18) was moored at Harwich’s Ha’Penny Pier. Being the last manned Trinity Light Vessel, she was restored and maintains her original configuration. As well as being a tourist attraction, she has been used to take part in special radio broadcasting events.
In the evenings, we spent time at various Sea Cadet units – the variety of questions raised never cease to amaze! During the day, two more Pier Walks were achieved in chilly conditions at ‘classy’ Clacton and Walton-on-the-Naze. Walking out of Walton towards The Naze headland, I felt a real buzz of excitement as I looked across the bay to see Harwich, in the foreground and Felixstowe Container port in the distance.
I knew that reaching Felixstowe (in Suffolk) would take a good few more miles of walking, but it also indicated I was nearing the end of the Essex coastline. Without doubt, the high point of the week was stumbling up a very muddy River Stour on the Essex Way and crossing a road bridge in the wet evening gloom to read a sign. It said ‘Welcome to Suffolk’.
Walking was interrupted again with a final WRNS100 meeting back in Portsmouth, after which the Essex escapade continued: walking up and down 3 rivers – the Crouch, Blackwater Estuary and the Colne which was bridged at Colchester.
First, on the narrow River Crouch, for the sake of a channel barely 150 yards wide, where years ago a ferry used to run, the choice was a very cold muddy swim, or a detour. I chose the 7-mile detour which took me via Battlesbridge, the renowned Antiques Centre.
We were fortunate to be offered various overnight stops in marinas, with Burnham-on-Crouch being particularly helpful. During WW2 Burnham-on-Crouch became home to HMS St Matthew, a Combined Operations Training Centre. Today, the name lives on by way of the St Matthew (Sailing) Challenge Cup which is competed for annually by the four local sailing clubs. The cup was presented by the officers, men and ‘wrens’ of the establishment as a way of saying ‘thank you’ to the locals who vacated various buildings in 1943.
After leaving the Crouch mouth there was a long walk-in before reaching the Blackwater Estuary. That Sunday I walked 13.5 miles to church - the ancient Chapel of St Peter on the Wall. Beyond, the Bradwell nuclear power station (decommissioning) was visible for miles, on both the up and down estuary banks.
At the estuary head, Maldon, famed for its sea salt, offered a fine display of preserved flat-bottomed London Thames Sailing Barges; with a shallow draught and leeboards, these were built specially to cope with the shallow waters of the Thames Estuary. Nearby, at Heybridge Basin it was interesting to observe the complicated replacement of the sea lock which links the Blackwater to the Chelmer Canal.
Amongst the more unusual sights seen this week there has been a domed Minefield Control Tower, allegedly only one of two in the entire country – I’ve to look out for the other when I get to Scotland! Nearby, on the Dengie mud flats, old metal Thames barges are now being used to help prevent tidal erosion and protect sites of historical interest. Also observed in the Blackwater Estuary was Merchant Vessel Ross Revenge, alias Radio Caroline. Nearing Tollesbury I came across Curly’s Perch – a vast bench more suited to Royalty. Whoever Curly was, he certainly was held in high esteem.
The seemingly endless grassy (and muddy) Essex sea walls have continued. Meanwhile, Trail names such as Saffron, Saltmarsh Coast and St Peter’s Way are ones that have been and gone. Frustrations have included very strong head winds, being peppered by hailstorms (always at the remotest point!), and Network Rail workmen not allowing me to use a level crossing; this resulted in a long detour which saw me walking after dusk in high visibility clothing, complete with flashing headtorch on a busy main road during Friday rush-hour. Not recommended and not much fun.
Turning my Back on the Thames
Walking away from the ExCel exhibition complex at the Royal Victoria and Albert Docks, I experienced a step-change in my surroundings. Road walking was frightening, and deep rubbish was strewn alongside the roadside, verges and paths. The areas of Barking and Dagenham appeared run-down, with most of the former Ford factory in a derelict state. The huge landfill site at Coldharbour was equally depressing. The terminals and wharves from Purfleet led me into more of the same, with the cranes of Tilbury Docks looming in the distance.
At Tilbury I looked across to the Gravesend ferry: had I taken it I’d have saved my legs 85.5 miles, but even now I wouldn’t change that costly decision. I picked up the Thames Estuary Path in Tilbury which I followed over the next couple of days. A low tide meant that the London International Cruise Terminal was empty on the day I walked past. Close to the sea wall beside the defunct Tilbury Power Station, new office blocks have sprung up yet at the same place I found gypsies’ horses stretched out in the sun. Then followed two beautifully maintained (English Heritage) forts, Tilbury and Coalhouse: the latter had seen Wrens work there during WW2.
Glancing across the Thames I could identify all the places I’d tramped through on the Isle of Grain – quite a satisfying feeling. I soon found that the Thames Estuary Path was going to take me on a game of snakes and ladders in the mud, weaving in and out of various marshes with delightful names such as West Thurrock, Mucking, Fobbing, Vange and Bowers. These detours were to keep the walker inland of the vast London Gateway Port – a land of containers, and refineries. To my right I skirted Canvey island.
The walk-in to Southend-on-Sea seemed almost as long as its World Record length pier. I passed through Leigh-on-Sea where I saw the former HMS Wilton which is now the HQ for Essex Yacht Club. It was a glorious evening with stunning views across the Thames to the Isles of Grain and Sheppey. I pushed on hard to get to the pier before last admission time, but alas I was 5 mins late. I had to return next morning, by which time the weather had undergone a major change – unfortunately for the worse.
For those interested, the Pier is a master of survival. Opened in 1830, it was extended to its world record length in 1929, measuring 1.34 miles. It has suffered 3 fires in 1959, 1976 (repaired in 1983) and a further fire in 1995. In addition, at least 3 merchant vessels have collided with it also causing major damage. Despite all this, it continues to survive and thrive. For those unwilling or unable to walk its length, there’s a smart little diesel train to carry them sedately to the end. I confess I also used the train but, bought a one-way ticket!
Leaving Southend and the Thames estuary behind me, I headed out into rain at Shoeburyness. I found the revitalised old garrison town fascinating. Road walking took me round the military Danger Areas before I plunged back into more muddy marshes. The weather went from bad to worse on the next day – I found myself walking into driving rain, sleet and snow on yet more exposed river banks, sliding about in mud.
Bridging the Miles
By deciding to walk into London via the south bank of the Thames, and then walking down into Essex via the north bank, I witnessed various bridging methods: I chose Westminster bridge as my crossing point. Other options I could have used were:
River Defences, Mud, Regeneration, Waste, and Commerce (Walking the River Thames)
The decision not to take the sensible (!) option of a ferry across the Thames from Gravesend to Tilbury added an extra 85.5 miles to the overall Victory Walk distance – but it was worth it.
It was a fascinating journey, observing the smart, tatty, muddy and smelly parts of London. At times I found it utterly depressing, relieved just to return to my base camp in Abbey Wood on the south side of the river, east of Woolwich Arsenal. As each leg finished I decided on the best way of getting to and from the Victory Van.
The Dartford Barrier, part of the Thames flood defences system, forced some extra miles. To the eye, only a short hop across the Dartford Creek, but for the walker a detour inland, the negotiation of two smaller creeks, and back down the other side. It was the Thames Barrier with its series of vertical silver ‘ships’ bows’ that captured my interest. Sadly, the Visitor Centre was closed for refurbishment.,
The 180 miles of the Thames Path National Trail officially commences at the Barrier, leading you to the river’s source. This Path became my main route into London; at times signs just ‘ran out’, or a diversion for some unknown reason took me away from the river bank. When the acorn sign wasn’t apparent I was often able to pick up the Jubilee Greenway pavement signs instead. The Jubilee Greenway path was completed in 2012 to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the London 2012 Games.
Evidence of waste disposal and power generation was everywhere. Apart from all the illegal fly-tipping, vast areas of land have been given over to landfill sites. Snakes of lorries waited patiently to discard their loads, before driving away to fill up again. Low level barges, towed by a tug-like vessel, bearing shipments of numerous containers full of waste are also moved up and down the river.
Sewage treatment works are a regular sight. The works at Crossness is one of the largest in Europe handling enough sewage to fill 20 Olympic size swimming pools, every hour of the day. At the Crossness Sludge Powered Generator, dried sewage sludge is burned to generate renewable energy. Before this was introduced the sludge would have been transported in boats, leaving the Crossness Jetty daily and dumping their cargoes out in the North Sea.
My route also led me past many wharves where ships were taking on aggregates. Conveyor belts carried rocks and chippings to the ships, while chutes spurted out cargoes of fine sand. With so much house building taking place products such as these are in constant demand. In contrast to these noisy and dirty industries were the swish, futuristic office blocks of Canary Wharf, or the Shard clad with its 11,000 glass panels. And then there’s the tourist industry, offering the tripper everything from bus trips to a spin in the London Eye – disappointingly it was closed for maintenance on the day I passed!
With London’s constantly changing skyline it’s really good to see excellent examples of regeneration, where old buildings have been given new leases of life. Being a dedicated tea drinker, I think my favourite is Hay’s Galleria. Formerly Hay’s Wharf, built around an enclosed dock, was regularly visited by the majestic tall tea clippers bringing in their cargoes from India and China.
The restoration of other old buildings has given them a new purpose too. Old warehouses now provide upmarket housing, and who would have thought that the former armaments production site at Royal Woolwich Arsenal would become a smart residential area.
This was the London of contrasts I saw when I tramped up the Thames, crossed at Westminster Bridge and walked out along the north bank.
A Cold and Lonely Start to 2018 (Sittingbourne to Gravesend)
The New Year began with the wind punching me backwards and sideways as I pushed out of Sittingbourne, under the Sheppey Crossing bridges, and up alongside the River Swale. It was impossible to hold a camera steady, so few pics available. I eventually pulled into the lovely haven of Upchurch where the Village Hall committee kindly gave permission for us to use their car park.
Kent, is renowned for its orchards: I passed quite a few but nothing to pick. Across the way I could see the Hoo Peninsula (Isle of Grain), the Kingsnorth Power Station building and other industrial landmarks - all waiting to be experienced. And did you know, Gillingham is the home of that engineering masterpiece, the Jubilee Clip, invented by Commander Lumley Robinson Royal Navy who had worked at Chatham Dockyard?
Chatham Dockyard was closed, but I did manage to get permission to visit the old Dockyard Church, now a university lecture theatre. Rochester Bridge, overlooked by its castle, provided my crossing point over the River Medway into Strood. Here I ‘pinged’ a second-hand Russian submarine from the Cold War era moored up.
On the north side of the Medway at Lower Upnor, a memorial remembers the Training Ship Arethusa which used to be moored off from 1933 – 1974. With a low tide I soon learned why my nickname is Hippo, but I managed to wallow through. There then followed a long industrial trek out to Grain. HGVs, various types of power station and a now largely redundant container terminal were all seen in their full glory.
Walking down the north side of the Peninsula gave me my first views of Father Thames. The wind chill factor was a fitting backdrop to this bleak and desolate place: I could have got lost, and never been found. During a 15.5 mile walk I encountered 3 people at the end of the day, otherwise, my only company was a flock of sheep and some ponies.
The last stretch into Gravesend was one of contrasts - Milton with its rundown, vandalised and litter strewn paths was followed by a smart Gravesend: a town proud of its long maritime links and once home to a training establishment for British Merchant Navy seaman. A ferry service across the Thames to Tilbury runs from the Town Pier building. Extremely tempting, but as I’d agreed to walk up the south bank of the Thames (and back down the north), I couldn’t jump aboard.
It will be interesting to see how many extra miles this Thames ramble will put onto the Victory Walk……
Breaking Up for Christmas 2017
Apart from the ongoing north-westerly wind, walking to Whitstable presented a further challenge – weaving between numerous dog owners who, in many cases, failed to control their menagerie of dogs. While I tried to move forward I was often thwarted by different dog families chasing one another. I was glad to reach Whitstable but learned that relying only on council-provided way marked signs was unwise: to avoid getting ‘lost’ always read signs in conjuncton with your map. Guess who didn’t?!
More dyked sea walls to walk on as I passed Seasalter and the Isle of Sheppey gradually came into view. Marshland and Nature Reserves were a constant feature as I made my way up into Faversham along unkempt paths which bordered an untidy creek. The historic town, full of wooden buildings and wide streets, was just packing up a Christmas market as I made my way along its brightly lit streets.
White frosty conditions saw me head off down the Oare Creek bound for Sittingbourne. Much of the walk was beside the flat calm Swale Channel where the derelict munitions factory on Uplees Marshes was clearly visible. Old wooden hulks had been left to rot by the riverbanks and ahead, the Sheppey Crossing loomed out of the mist, and the distant whistle of the Sittingbourne and Kemsley Light Railway could be heard. Turning up Milton Creek, I passed disused oyster beds; it wouldn’t take long to head into Sittingbourne and a Christmas break.
Along the Way – Part 8 (Margate to Sittingbourne)
Last Push Before Christmas 2017
After the final WRNS100 event in London I went straight back on the walk. Into yet more stormy conditions I was reminded of the power of sea and those selfless people who put themselves in danger to save others. On Nayland Rock, a lifeboat memorial stands to commemorate the loss of 9 out of 13 crew members of Margate’s lifeboat who died in December 1897. As the waves crashed over the long sea wall heading towards Reculver I made sure I kept well clear.
On a distant headland I could see a derelict building, the remains of St Mary’s Church, Reculver. Fighting the head-wind it seemed to take forever to reach the site walking along a raised sea-dyke wall. Ten miles out to sea I could see the Kentish Flats Wind Farm, a vast development of 30 turbines providing 100,000 north-east Kent households with electrical power that’s transported ashore by underground cables
After a short break on a grassy cliff path, it was more concrete wall walking into Herne Bay, with the distant clock tower glowing a warm light providing my beacon. Like Ramsgate, Herne Bay was also decorated for Christmas; 32 of its post boxes boast specially knitted Christmas scenes placed on top of the pillar boxes! Organised by the local Craft Club, these have become somewhat of a tourist attraction.
Another female pioneer is remembered in a bronze statue at Herne Bay – Amy Johnson, the young aviatrix. Amy lost her life when her plane ditched off Herne Bay in January 1941 while on active duty. Already a record-breaking pilot and international celebrity, her loss was deeply felt by the aviation community.
Herne Bay is also a town of two halves when it comes to its pier. The seaward end sits forlornly one mile out, separated from its main shoreside structure. After many years of neglect it’s highly unlikely the two will ever be rejoined, despite local petitions. Although much shorter than its original design I did a lap of the pier amongst the Christmas stalls and Santa’s grotto.
Concluding WRNS100 in 2017
At Margate I took myself off the Victory Walk for the final WRNS100 event held in the State Rooms of Speaker’s House, Westminster. A fabulous end to an amazing year, where MPs from all parties came together to say thank you to 100 women who represented women of the past and present Naval Service. It was attended by 50 veterans from each decade since 1940 until the separate Women’s Royal Naval Service was disbanded in 1993, and 50 women serving in today’s Royal Navy.
It was uplifting to see the mutual respect between all those women – the changes of the past century would have seemed inconceivable to the first Wrens of 1917. Every woman there was so proud to represent her individual contribution, her era of service and specialisation. The WRNS100 year could not have concluded in a more prestigious venue.
Dover to Deal
Changing to a northerly bearing I walked up and away from Dover, where the distinctive chalky landscape is managed by the National Trust. I passed the entrance to the restored Fan Bay Deep Shelter; a vast tunnel complex used as accommodation for the gun battery that held a dominant position on Dover’s cliffs during WW2. In the distance I could see the decommissioned South Foreland Lighthouse, one of a chain of Trinity House lights that had been set up to warn mariners of the nearby treacherous Goodwin Sands.
Located east of St Margaret’s at Cliffe, and seen through driving rain, I walked by the Dover Patrol memorial that overlooks Dover Straits. This honours men of the Royal and Merchant Navies who formed a discrete unit during the First World War. Over 2,000 men from the Patrol lost their lives performing such duties as bombarding German land forces in coastal Belgium, escorting troop ships, sweeping for German mines and seeking their U-Boats
Trudging on in the rain I sensed I was entering an area holding strong links with the Royal Marines. A bench displaying a sodden poppy wreath on Kingsdown seafront caught my eye; Sgt Andrews who had instructed Squad 318 back in 1944 was still being remembered in 2017. Testament indeed! When the Royal Marines training depot had been at Deal, Kingsdown range had been where young RM recruits experienced their first live firing of weapons.
In Deal, the presence of Royal Marines still proudly lingers. A local pub has been deftly renamed the ‘Green Berry’ (as opposed to beret) and of course the Deal Memorial bandstand remembers 11 musicians from the RM Band Service who were killed by an IRA bomb in 1989. Home to the School of Music for many years, Deal still welcomes back the RM Band for an annual concert. If they had been there on the day I passed through, only wet notes would have been played! For such an attractive town I could not have chosen a worse day to visit, but I still managed to stagger through the rain to the end of the functional 1950s concrete build pier – another ticked-off!
Turning the Corner
Freezing conditions replaced rain for the walk out of Deal to Sandwich. Golfers on the three Royal courses that ran parallel to the coast grappled to hold their clubs. Stopping would have meant I’d have stuck to the ground. Vast Sandwich estate houses overlooked the chocolate coloured sea and craft looked lost, stranded in the muddy creek gullies of the tidal Sandwich Haven. The charming Cinque Port of Sandwich was followed by some grim walking alongside a very busy dual carriageway before I could break away into Pegwell Country Park.
Pegwell Bay was where, in the 70s, I’d travelled to France for the first time by Hoverlloyds’s hovercraft. The only remains of that era of sea travel is the hoverpad, still visible above the muddy water of the Bay. Shortly after, Ramsgate Harbour came into view, uniquely permitted to call itself a Royal Harbour. The Dock Master offered us a safe haven on the quay for the night. Boats in the inner harbour were adorned with twinkling Christmas lights and the town had a real feel of a working port. Pilot boats and windfarm tugs moved in and out and during the overnight storm we saw a fishing boat struggle in with its catch.
Apart from the weather, the walk out of Ramsgate to Broadstairs was easy – a mix of concrete sea walls and sandy beaches pickled with white chalky rocks covered in green weed; from a distance it resembled bubble-bath foam! I was keen to reach North Foreland where I would ‘turn the corner’ to move in a westerly direction. A famous landmark for shipping, North Foreland has the distinction of being the very last lighthouse to be automated in November 1998. Afterwards, an easy stretch into Margate on a dismally wet afternoon. Everywhere felt gloomy and wasn’t helped by acres of graffiti scrawled on every conceivable sign, bench, building and sea wall.
Along the Way – Part 7 (Littlestone-on-Sea to Margate)
Dungeness led to a long straight piece of walking on beaches, cycle routes and concrete sea walls built to cope with the constant pounding of the sea. Littlestone-on-Sea, St Mary’s Bay, Dymchurch soon passed. By now I was walking in T-shirt, following the earlier freezing northerly winds. Approaching Hythe I could see a red flag fluttering and had heard the constant gunfire on Hythe ranges ahead. Another detour on an A road, so it was good to reach the genteel town of Hythe, famed for its Military Canal and the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch railway – sadly no Santa Special running that day!
Hythe had also produced Britain’s only male gold medal winner at the 1960 Summer Olympics held in Rome. Racewalker Don Thompson who had won the 50 km walk in 1960 had taught at the nearby Southlands School (now Marsh Academy): he’s commemorated by a plaque set in the seawall beyond the Hythe Imperial Hotel.
The long concrete walk continued past Sandgate and eventually into Folkestone. Again, no cliff railway in service so up the steep steps to see the Step-Short Memorial above Remembrance Hill. A very poignant memorial to First World War soldiers. Looking seaward you realise just how close (and threatening) the French coastline must have appeared during WW2.
Folkestone is full of unknowns, thanks to the Creative Quarter of the town. Exhibits of ‘Folkestone Artwork’ take you by surprise, some whacky, others lifelike. The Antony Gormley sculpture looking out to sea is just one of those. A town still full of character which had seen so much action during WW2. I was sad to leave and make my way up onto the North Downs Way cliff path above the busy port.
Flight, Listening, Freight and Dover
Up on the cliffs I spent time at the Battle of Britain Memorial, dedicated to aircrew of RAF Fighter Command who fought to gain command of the airspace in the summer of 1940. The site of WW1 Royal Naval Air Station Capel was on the other side of the village. This opened in 1915 and from here the Royal Navy deployed spotting airships to patrol the Channel. It is highly likely that WW1 Wrens from the Dover Division would have served here.
En route for Dover, a redundant Sound Mirror used in WW2 came into view above Abbot’s Cliff. During WW2, Wrens who served with the Y Interceptor branch worked at Abbot’s Cliff, passing information back to Bletchley Park. Continuing, Dover gradually grew closer. The trig point on Shakespeare Cliffs indicated that I was standing directly above the Channel Tunnel, the spoils of that construction clearly visible below on the seaward side is the man-made Samphire Hoe Country Park. To my left, the A20 was stacked with freight lorries streaming into town to board the next cross channel ferry: about 2.5 million lorries pass through this port annually.
The noise, smell, rubbish and grime was constant. Hardly surprising the town has a shabby feel about it, though efforts have been made to maintain Marine Parade in seaside fashion. An array of monuments and memorials acknowledge Dover’s varied past. I noticed one to the Royal Norwegian Navy who served here in WW2 at HMS Wasp which was a large coastal forces base that hosted mine layers, torpedo and gun boats. Dover had been a key reception port for exhausted troops returning from the Dunkirk beaches, and Dover based Wrens had worked tirelessly during that dark time.
QUESTION. Has the Victory Walker vanished?
ANSWER. No - she's been too busy walking, with no time for talking. With Christmas approaching and presents to choose, she's slipped off her boots and will send you some news . .
Along the Way – Part 6 (Seaford to Littlestone)
Ups and Downs and Along the Flat Again
Another duty stint in Portsmouth meant a late-night arrival on Seaford promenade. Soon the Victory Van rocked and shook as the Force 10 howled around us. We slept little. The rain pummelled the Van and we woke to more rain, nil visibility and high winds: it was clear Beachy Head would have to wait.
Next day was a complete contrast, cold winds and excellent ‘viz’. The Seven Sisters glared in the sunlight as I made my way down to the storm eroded hamlet of Cuckmere Haven, before joining the South Downs Way and my switch-back trip, via an equally eroded Birling Gap, to the famous Beachy Head. Both lighthouses seemed in appropriately placed: one below the cliffs at sea level, the other in-land following its move a few years ago.
The views were stunning and it’s clear why the memorial to the RAF Bomber Command was placed on the headland – it served as the airmen’s outward and (hopefully) homeward waymark. Other memorials scatter the cliff walk, particularly at Beachy Head on the old Lloyds Signal Station.
Eastbourne boasted distinct sea shelters with thatched roofs with a corporate colour of royal blue used on railings and benches which contrasted well with the golden domed pier. Buildings ranged from historic splendour to shabby residences, eventually followed by acres of static caravan parks. Pevensey Bay produced numerous ‘Keep Out – Private Beach’ signs which made for tiring and disrupted walking. Bexhill, the home of motorsport, used maroon as its corporate colour and will be remembered for the many, many blocks of flats.
Cycle Route No 2 provided a speedy approach to Bulverhythe, followed by St Leonards, then into Pier of the Year (2017) town, Hastings. Despite the bitter weather, I had to spend time looking at this incredible restoration project after fire devastated the pier in 2010. Old Town was equally impressive with evidence of the town’s fishing industry and a superb Winkle Club monument. With the East Cliff Railway closed for winter it was a tramp up the steep cliff path, heading into snow flurries and freezing winds. I joined the Saxon Shore Way which runs 163 miles from Hasting, east to Gravesend. The only way to keep warm was to march along the steep ups and downs of the cliff path to Fairlight, onto Cliff End and out onto Pett Levels.
Another long stretch along Winchelsea Beach heading for Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, before heading up the Rother channel to Rye. Along this stretch I passed the deserted Mary Stanford Lifeboat house. It was left as a reminder of the 17 crewmen who all lost their lives when responding to a call on 15 November 1928. They went to their mission in a 14 oar pulling/sailing Liverpool Class Surf Boat. They had no self-righting mechanism, no motor power, nor modern communications; the lifeboatmen failed to see a recall signal in the frightful conditions and sadly they all perished.
After Rye I made the mistake of arriving at the vast Camber Sands at dusk. Acres of sand but I couldn’t spy the sea. Next morning, after a noisy overnight layby stop I met the reverse view: daylight and little beach in sight. With high water, and although the ranges were not being used, the detour took me on two sides of the Lydd triangle and into a new county, Kent. Soon I saw vast pylons with cables trailing back towards Dungeness Power Station appear out of the mizzle, shortly followed by the Old (1904) all black Lighthouse , now a Grade II listed building. Construction of the Dungeness Power Station, which hid the light from shipping coming from the S West necessitated today’s black and white striped New (1960) lighthouse being built. An eerie place but a very significant landmark for shipping in the Dover Straits, and the Victory Walker who rounded a corner.
Preparing to go
Ever tried moving house twice in a week and deciding what items should go to each house, or be discarded?
What on Earth Have You Been Doing?
This is the cry I hear from above the sound of the sea. A month out from my departure I think it’s about time to start giving you all an update.
Trafalgar Day and our 21st wedding anniversary dawned wet and windy – Storm Brian was buffeting the UK, and HMS Victory: the start of my marathon coastal walk looked shrouded in gloom. It was soon cheered by the first donation of £20 from one of the Dockyard Gate Security Team – good man, and I’m hoping for many more!
After many years thinking about it, following our purchase of the ‘Victory Van’ and six complicated weeks of preparations, we made the Start Line on schedule; hard to believe the moment had arrived. I ‘stepped-off’ from HMS Victory at 1000 and left the Naval Base by Victory Gate. A pause to take a few deep breaths while listening to the Cathedral bells in old Portsmouth – in two weeks’ time I’d be back there on duty for a WRNS100 event.
I moved on to the Sally Port from where Admiral Nelson had started his final journey to HMS Victory and the Battle of Trafalgar 212 years before. I wondered if he knew what challenges had been ahead of him: I know some of mine, but it is like taking a leap of faith into the unknown. Within 30 mins I’d been drenched by the squalls – this was a taste of the future!
Toothache and Teething Troubles
Despite all the planning and checks, initial teething problems are inevitable – most affected the Victory Van, and some me. A bout of toothache began within the first week, as always at the most inconvenient time. I decided the pending Halloween played a part – my ever reliable camera decided to ‘give up the ghost’, shortly followed by the mobile phone failing to hold charge. Frank too was wrestling with vehicle problems – no hot water. Bravo Zulu (naval term) to Daz Sharman the mobile technician who came to the aid of our boiler. A blown light bulb indicated problems with the electrics, and then it was the new Sat Nav, followed by Blue Tooth problems. As each problem presented itself, Frank hurdled the barriers in his former steeplechaser style. But we were not alone. Like Signs Express beforehand, Somerset Motorhomes, Halfords, Mobile Car Solutions and others were all there, helping and willing us on.
Life in the Van
Wherever you are in the Victory Van, you’re in the way. You can never find anything. When you’re looking for something all you’ll find is the thing you were looking for two days ago! Everything takes twice as long because 2 adults are living in a doll’s house! Despite this, we know that as we shed our ‘shake down’ L Plates life will become easier, and perhaps even fun!
Although keen to get away from Portsmouth – we aim to be in north Scotland by April - I knew I’d be required to return on occasion. My commitment to WRNS100 events, the Naval Service and the Project Group continues until the WRNS100 year concludes. Those duties have been like a bungee elastic, pulling me back before firing me forward again.
Project meetings and follow-on actions one week. Next, the Thanksgiving Service at Portsmouth Cathedral, a Reception and unveiling of the Commemorative Stone with 1,000 women (and one First Sea Lord!) This was followed by being the Royal Navy representative in Bristol at the funeral of Mrs Alison Robins, a WW2 Wren who worked for the ‘Y’ listening stations. She passed information to Station ‘X’, much later revealed to be Bletchley Park. I was accompanied by a Phase 2 female communications trainee from HMS Collingwood; it was an honour to be present at the funeral of a gutsy and ambitious Wren who had always been proud of her service in the WRNS. Still to be planned is a Reception in the Houses of Parliament for 100 former and serving Naval Service women.
Along the Way – Part 1
While battling strong winds and driving rain on the southern most tip of Thorney Island (not a soul in sight) I was reminded of the Royal Marines advert “It’s a State of Mind” – is that a sane, or insane mind I asked myself as I ploughed on. But there has been sunshine too. On another part of Chichester Harbour (would the inlets ever end?!) it was time for T-shirt walking as I headed into West Itchenor and an overnight stop, courtesy of Birdham Marina. It was here that WW2 Wrens once worked as maintainers on Landing Craft prior to D-Day.
Along the Way – Part 2
Passing through ‘The Witterings’ and into Selsey Bill which proved to be a disappointment – the Bill was indefinable. The vast loop of Pagham Harbour (which included a tranquil overnight stop at Sidlesham Quay) kept my legs busy for a good few hours before reaching Bognor Regis. Bognor was a mix of old, new and sad – and I couldn’t walk the pier. But a low tide gave me the chance to walk along the beach weaving in and out of the Elmer loops before reaching Littlehampton.
Along the Way – Part 3
Littlehampton was a town of surprises. Its West Beach reminded me of my childhood home, Slapton – both beaches had been used for D-Day rehearsals in 1943. Littlehampton’s former shipyard provided some South Atlantic memories too: the barque TROSSOCH had sailed on her maiden voyage from here to the Falkland Islands in 1877 carrying the very first consignment of Scottish sheep and their shepherds to establish what would become the Islands’ main industry, sheep farming. This small town also has the UK’s longest continuous seafront bench, measuring 1,000 feet/304 metres, while a beach café sign advertises ‘Doggy Ice cream’ ….. with tantalising flavours your doggy will love’!
Along the Way – Part 4
Onward, through the Goring Gap to Worthing where the local ‘Boys in Blue’ kindly took a picture of me approaching Worthing Pier – this time no Storm Brian to stop me ‘doing’ the Pier. The town is a mix of beautiful older architecture, nestling beside acres of modern blocks of flats. The monotony of shingle and groynes continued but was broken by the wonderful view of Lancing College up on the hill, overlooking Shoreham. The airfield, witness to the tragic Shoreham Air Disaster in 2015, was busy with planes constantly flying in and out. Shoreham’s real working harbour was a delight to watch and I spied the former RNR Unit, HMS Sussex, with its commanding view over the water.
Clocking my first mileage century, Hove the quieter end of Brighton came into view, as did the derelict West Pier – it took many steps to get me there and yet more to reach the main Pier where I experienced all the good and bad it had to offer.
Along the Way – Part 5
After an almost flat walk from Portsmouth, the first hills at Saltdean were a rude awakening for the thigh muscles, but worth the clamber. Turf on top of the chalk cliffs was a welcome change to feet and eyes. The Greenwich Meridian memorial at Peacehaven listed both familiar names such as Halifax, Nova Scotia, with ones that have changed: Aden, listed as being in Arabia – now South Yemen. Next port, Newhaven with its sweeping protective breakwater and where thousands of troops departed for Europe. It was depressing to see the railway station a shadow of its former self.