Wild Walking UK

LEJOG Chapter 17: Helmsdale to John O’Groats

So this is it – the final chapter. It features a tough walk along the coast path to John O’Groats, some lovely people, and a small accident with my wee bottle inside my tent…

You can read my adventure from the start here and my gear list and route plan here.

Day 60: Tuesday 16th April 2019

I set off from just north of Helmsdale at 6.30am, thinking it was 7.30 – although I suppose it made little difference! The day had dawned with very thick cloud, but it brightened up in the afternoon with sunny spells and a fresh breeze.

The John O’Groats Trail has been very well marked, which is fortunate as the navigation would be difficult without it. There were a few places today where the signs were missing, but not many. There are some fences , gates and stiles to climb, and some of these look brand new, so it is clear that the trail is still a work in progress.

The trail is extremely well signposted in some places, but not in others

At Berriedale, I met Andy Robinson, who wrote the Land’s End to John O’Groats Cicerone trail guide. He was making notes to update his draft of the John O’Groats Trail book, and called me mad for starting my LEJOG in February! Perhaps he had a point.

Gorgeous views along the JOGT

I used a combination of road and coast path to Dunbeath. The village had a local shop and I felt guilty not buying any food in there, even though they didn’t really sell anything suitable to carry in my pack. I ended up buying two chocolate bars and two fresh pies for my tea. I stopped at Laidhay Croft Museum cafe about a mile or so further on the A9 – it looked an interesting place, but I enjoyed just sitting down for an hour!

Enjoying my pie from the Dunbeath shop

It was a nice walk along the coast from here, following a relatively flat path, although I had to jump a few fences from the road to join it. I walked across nice grassy fields along the cliff edge with a few descents and climbs in and out of gullies. It made this part an interesting walk, and I enjoyed it. Finally I reached Lybster, which was an unusual place with a long, wide open main street. I stocked up on food here with a very friendly and helpful shop owner, then walked the length of the main street to the Portland Arms Hotel. This was a over a mile out of my way, but the two pints and three course meal was well worth the effort. I recommend it.

The extraordinarily wide high street in Lybster

After my dinner, I walked the mile or so back down Lybster’s main street and along the coast path for a short distance. I dropped into a valley and camped near to a small river and the sea. It was about 8pm when I set up campe, leaving me an hour or so of daylight to sort myself out.

Camp for day 60

Day 61: Wednesday 17th April 2019

It had been dry all night with a steady breeze, so it was good to put my tent away dry this morning. It had been warmer overnight, too, so there was no issue with condensation.

A river flowing into the sea on the coast path

I had 44 miles left to do, and I could finally think about the finish and the fact that I just might get there. My ankle and knee pain was not so bad yesterday, and I think it was a good move stopping early on Monday and resting them a bit.

I started out on the coast path today but soon struggled, so I used the road for a short distance. However, I got fed up dodging the traffic and having to climb up the bank all the time. I had a lucky break and chatted to a lovely man outside his bungalow – his knowledge of the coast path between there and Wick gave me the confidence to re-join the coast path via a few fences and fields.

The path is very close to the cliff edge in places

The coast path was still tough going, but definitely easier than before, so I plodded on to Wick, just stopping twice to sit in the sun. All the cloud had now cleared, but it was still very windy.

The path came very close to some high cliff edges at times, and felt a little dangerous. I could imagine how it might feel in more inclement weather. I enjoyed the stunning cliff-top views, but it did feel hard work to cover 18 miles.

Plenty of views today

I made it to Wick and found a Wetherspoons for a meal, then stocked up with a food shop. I wasn’t sure I had bought enough, but they didn’t really have much that was suitable. I panicked that I wouldn’t be able to get anything at all, as I was supposed to leave the pub at 7pm to allow me time to do my shopping and then find a camping spot out of town before it got dark.

Wick

However, I ended up not leaving the pub until after 8pm as just as I was leaving, I met June, who was on the first day of her JOGLE. I had a lovely chat with her and her husband, who is driving a camper van in support so June didn’t have to carry a pack. June is walking for the Alzheimer’s Society and using roads mainly. I couldn’t help thinking that that would be hard work, but she had put in an awful lot of training. She is aiming to reach Land’s End for a party that has been arranged for her 65th birthday – I admired her, as that time pressure would be hard for me to handle. You can read about June’s progress on her blog here.

June at the start of her JOGLE for the Alzheimer’s Society

So, I was a little worried when I finally left the pub at 8pm that I wouldn’t find any food. I managed to find somewhere open after asking a very helpful local lady – thank you – then walked out of town to find a lovely camp spot by the sea. It was perfect, but could have ended differently – I was lucky!

Camp for day 61

Day 62: Thursday 18th April 2019

I woke this morning to a wet tent, but it was spray from the sea rather than rain or condensation. The morning was clear and warm, and it was one of the first mornings that I hadn’t needed gloves on first thing. I walked a mile back into Wick for breakfast and coffee, and bumped into June again. They insisted on buying me breakfast as I’d nearly finished, which was a lovely gesture.

I tried to leave Wick for the second time, but then got chatting to Bruce, and we had a lovely chat about gear and long-distance walks. He was really interesting and even offered me a lift back to Wick from John O’Groats when I’d finished. It would have been absolutely perfect if my wife and children hadn’t been driving up to meet me at the end. He was only the second person on the whole trip that I’ve suggested they keep in touch and maybe we could walk together in the future, and both of them have been in Inverness or above. Nice people up here!

Just outside Wick, the town I finally managed to leave

Shortly after this, near the light house, a couple stopped me for a chat and asked what I was doing. When I told them, they said that they were glad they’d asked me. It felt good to have improved someone’s day – it made me happy too.

I followed some nice paths or grassland, and the history of the area was fascinating. I particularly enjoyed walking past Castle Sinclair Girnigoe just past Noss Head.

Castle Sinclair Girnigoe

I made it to Freswick Bay, but there were a load of cows where I had planned to camp. I had to compromise and just managed to squeeze my tent in between some sea defences, next to a small stream that I wasn’t expecting. I had bought and carried two litres of water from Wick! I had transferred this water into my Platypus but hadn’t quite done the lid up tight enough, which had led to a puddle in the bottom of my pack. My sleeping bag had been at the bottom (for the first time on the whole trip), so it was soaked. I also hadn’t bothered to do up the waterproof bag properly in the nice weather. These were all mistakes of my own making, but very frustrating – perhaps I had relaxed too much now I was so close to the end. The last cock up was managing to spill my wee bottle inside my tent…

I walked the whole length of this – Sinclair’s Bay. The path didn’t last for long
Freswick Bay

Predictably, I had not eaten enough today so tea was looking good. It was a Naked Noodle, chicken tikka slices and bites, an iced bun, two chocolate muffins and fruit shortbread. I briefly considered leaving some for breakfast, but I was just too hungry so I ate it all.

Limited camping on rough ground – I was very grateful for my inflatable air bed

Day 63: Friday 19th April 2019

My last day.

I woke at 1am. It was breezy. And dark. So my thoughts of getting going to John O’Groats had to wait…

Leaving early – a gorgeous sunrise

It was nice to camp my the sea, listening to the waves all night. I didn’t sleep well and my left foot was throbbing all night, and very painful. I was glad it was only eight miles to the end as it was definitely time to give my body and feet a rest before I ended up doing some serious damage. I came close to being unable to walk a few times.

Skirza hamlet

I was keen to get going and get the challenge finished, but I knew I was going to miss the people I met most days, and being out in the fresh air. I was really looking forward to being with my family again, washing my clothes, cleaning all my camping kit, eating proper meals and sleeping in my proper bed! Oh, and a bath. I will miss this though – I wonder if the experience has changed me?

Amazing cliff views along the path to John O’Groats

I had a lovely walk to and over Duncansby Head, with amazing cliff views on the way. It was then an easy route to the harbour at John O’Groats.

Stacks of Duncansby

I met my wife, Emma, and two youngest children, Rhiannon and Isaac, at the John O’Groats sign at 9.15am – it was perfect timing.

Reunited at John O’Groats

We sat in a great little cafe together and had breakfast (not the posh cafe, obviously). It will take time for me to process this experience, which a week later (as I’m writing this) is still the case.

I will post further blogs about my gear, and other reflections, here soon. Thanks for reading, and I really hope you enjoyed following me on my journey. Thanks also to all the lovely people I met along the way that made my trip so special. It was a privilege to meet every one of you.

My boots – after 1,200 miles
The End.

You can read my Reflections on the walk here.

You can read my full LEJOG Gear Review here.

My 11 Wild Camping Rules.

9 thoughts on “LEJOG Chapter 17: Helmsdale to John O’Groats

  1. Well done – a fantastic achievement! Have enjoyed every moment – looking forward to your thoughts and gear reports.

  2. Congrats. One of the finest achievements and best walks in the world 🙂

    dave – LeJog class of 2016 🙂

  3. Thank you for posting your walk and showing all the great places you wild tented. I am planning on doing LEJOG within the next couple of years and would like to tent along the way. You have helped to relieve some of the anxiety about finding suitable spots each night. Well done in walking the whole way in the time you did and not taking any rest days!

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