Enjoy a more leisurely cycle and appreciate seascapes, heritage and history rather than making a mad dash to reach Britain's northernmost point
Lands End to John O’Groats is the classic cycle route from one end of Britain to the other. There is much more to the most northerly point than getting your photo next to a signpost. Taking a glorious train ride to the north and spending a couple of nights means a relaxing cycle on mainly flat roads. This is where you will find some of the finest coastal scenery in Britain with beaches, lighthouses, nesting seabirds and defiant sea stacks.
Getting there is half the fun
The Far North Line, from Inverness to Wick, is one of Britain's great railway journeys. It passes through some of Scotland's wildest scenery; I saw a herd of red deer and we passed right next to Grey seals basking on the beach. It takes 3 hours 50 minutes to reach Thurso, the northernmost station on the national network and this is where to get off. From here it is a straight 32km cycle to John O’Groats.
Bikes are carried free, but must be booked in advance (call Scotrail on 08457 55 00 33) . Taking your bike is a great ice breaker; if there are any other cyclists on board it is impossible not to talk to each other because you have to share the same space on the train. I chatted to a woman who was aiming to cycle all the way back to her home in the Lake District. We got out maps and excitedly discussed routes and places to explore.
It is possible to get some great value fares on this route; Advance Single tickets can cost as little as £10.70 from Inverness to Thurso (www.scotrail.co.uk).
Did you know that John O’Groats is NOT the most northerly point on the British mainland?
It is actually a place called Dunnet Head. It is nearer to Thurso (21km) than John O’Groats is, so if you don't make it to the latter then at least you can tell all your friends that you went to the geographically true northernmost point!
The approach to Dunnet Head is bleak, passing through treeless moors and lonely lochs on a climb that will need good fitness but is rewarded with a dramatic outlook. The lighthouse with its immaculate white paint job, just begging for a photo, looks out on the vastness of the Atlantic. On a clear day the Orkney Isles can be seen. There is no great fanfare and none of the tourist shops that you will find at John O’Groats; just a simple Caithness flagstone stating that this is Britain's northernmost point.
Dunnet Bay (14km from Thurso) has one of those long, golden sands that lead many to say that Scotland has beaches that could easily compete with the Caribbean. I had a pleasant walk on the sand with nothing but the sound of the surf to keep me company. I love that noise of the sea meeting the land; who needs to bring an i pod on holiday when you have this?
"From the first sight of the Castle of Mey I fell in love with this district."
The Queen Mother's famous quote referred to her holiday home, the Castle of Mey, (24km from Thurso, 9.5km from John 0'Groats) which she visited every year until her death in 2002. It is open to visitors in the summer with guided tours of the castle, a walled garden, and rare breeds of sheep, pigs and alpine goats. (www.castleofmey.org.uk)
What is in John O’Groats?
"Costa Coffee!" This is what I wrote on a postcard to my grandmother. It summed up the commercialisation of this destination that you can get mochas and macchiatos from the famous British coffee house chain. A large car park, uninspiring museum, 20p for the toilet, too many souvenir shops and the fact that you have to pay to have a photo taken next to the famous sign will be my memory of this place. A recent survey showed that only 33% of visitors were happy with the facilities at John O’Groats, however it is set for a £15 million face lift over the next 20 years that should see it transformed into the inspiring place it deserves to be.
Jagged Sea Stacks
Somewhere much more impressive is just a short 2.3km cycle from John O’Groats- Duncansby Head. This is Scotland's coastal scenery at its most dramatic and beautiful. The stacks, with their pointed tops, rise from the water and stand proud against all that the sea unleashes. They are a mecca for screaming seabirds. I walked for about one hour along the cliff edges, with not a single person in sight, and could think of nowhere better to be on a Monday afternoon.
One thing that I try to do is spend money on things that are actually made in the area I am visiting.
Caithness Candles have a factory and showroom at John O’Groats. The candles come in a variety of unique shapes and colours. (www.visitjohnogroats.com/caithness_candles.htm)
Old Pulteney whiskey (www.oldpulteney.com) is the local dram, produced in Wick. This is the most northerly distillery on the Scottish mainland. The distinctive bottle features a traditional herring drifter, reflecting the maritime heritage of the area, and some say you can detect a hint of sea air when you place a glass of the 12-year old to your nose.
Local bakers supply the grocery shops in the small towns in the region. Look out for the shortbread and fruit biscuits from R.G. MacDonald of Wick. Delicious!
Stay somewhere with a bit of local character
Castletown (10km from Thurso) has a fascinating past associated with an industry that employed 500 people in the early 1900s and exported around the globe. This was the production of flagstone, used for paving and roofing. The flagstone trail, with interpretive panels, passes through the remnants of the works, including the wind pump tower and the quarry worker's cottages (www.castletownheritage.co.uk).
The Castletown Hotel is a two-star establishment with a sturdy Victorian frontage and modern extensions. The rooms (£75 for a double with breakfast) are small and basic, but comfortable. This part of the country is about the outdoors and most visitors are not here to sit in their rooms for hours on end, so there is no need for luxury and perfection. Friendly staff chatted to me about my journey and let me keep my bike inside the hotel which is always a thumbs up from me.
On first impressions the bar menu is standard pub grub, but when the food arrived I was surprised by the generous portion sizes and the crisp, fresh side salads. There was never any leftovers on my plate. Salmon in tarragon sauce and local haddock in beer batter are my recommendations.
The chap who cooked the breakfast, served the breakfast and worked on reception in the morning told me what it is like to live in Castletown. Yes, he said, the town looks a little tired with buildings in need of some TLC but that doesn’t matter because the place has a great community spirit. The local shop is a five minute walk from his house, but when he goes to buy a paper he has to factor in at least half an hour because everyone stops to have a chat. Castletown used to have a police station, but it closed down because there was only one crime report in the filing cabinet; a dog fouling incident!
It is much more pleasant to avoid the A836 and explore the region on the quiet B roads, via Castletown, Dunnet, Brough, Mey and Canisbay. It is mostly flat with the exception of the tough climb to Dunnet Head.