Day 1. John O'Groats to Wick. 25 miles.
The very first day. What a day it was too, or at least it was until about 2pm when it all went, as the Scots say, 'arse over tit'.
Truth be told, I was a little apprehensive about my first day on the trail. 25 miles is no joke and, as I had made the decision to avoid walking along the A9 to Inverness, I would be faced with strenuous cliff walking on the wild Scottish coastline in heavy winds, with a full pack and on a treacherous, poorly marked path. Especially as my training for this 1200 mile trek was limited mainly to reading how other people had prepared themselves instead of, y'know, actually walking myself.
However after a full Scottish breakfast at the excellent Anchorage B&B I set off at 8.15, full of naive confidence, nervous excitement, and black pudding.
After an hour of glorious clifftop walking in the chill morning sun I found myself overlooking the Duncansby Stacks, looming out of the North sea like, well, large rocks. Much unlike my regular morning commute I had yet to see a single human person and the fumes of London were replaced with the sweet, salty tang of the shore. So far so good.
The rest of the morning was spent meandering along the clifftops, slowly eating away at the first miles. Seals were splashing about in the bays below whilst above the occasional bird of prey would hang motionless against the sky ready to descend at the first sign of life of the land. The path itself was pretty barren, boggy heather doesn't make for the easiest terrain, and by 1pm I had made it to Keiss, my first stopping point,and I was knackered. The only hotel in town was not serving food, so I settled for a disappointing pint of Tennant's and a packet of nuts. The two locals were steadily drinking away the early afternoon and switching between noisily gulping their ale, casting mistrustful glances in my direction, holding an indoor chain smoking competition and speaking in Gaelic. What an interesting language Gaelic is; it sounds a lot like if a Scot who had just been resuscitated from drowning in alpen very quickly downed a bottle of cheap whiskey and tried to impersonate Tom Jones. Unintelligible. I quickly paid my tab (£2.50 a pint isn't bad) and wondered what I was doing with my life. Still, the clifftop scenery was pretty cool.
With an intimidating 14 miles still to go, it all began to go downhill quite quickly. First it began to rain. Then I was sent on a diversion that added at least a mile to my first day. When I rejoined the path, the River Wester had flooded its banks and I was forced to jump on the A road for the first time, being splashed with road water from passing cars whilst I wearily enjoyed the paltry collection of rusting stocking fillers that littered the verge. Up ahead a police cordon has closed the road due to issues with the Subsea pipeline, I was at a dead end. I had, however, just crossed the Wester, so I (very cleverly) hopped over a couple of barbed wire fences and figured I could follow the bank of the river back down to the coast and continue from there. The ground slowly turned from dry-ish, to moist, then damp, then sodden before ultimately evolving into a boggy quagmire. The river continued to widen as the barbed wire fences to my right refused to give way, leaving me on a strip of 'land' about 3 yards wide. After finally slogging through I then had to cross the river twice as it meandered, rendering my whole shortcut completely pointless. With my boots now filled to the brim with Scottish estuary I had to climb a series of grassy sand dunes which offered no access to the beach, were completely unmarked and went on forever. I could see my next rest stop, Ackergill House, in the distance, but no matter how many dunes I slid down it never seemed to get any closer.
I finally arrived at Ackergill House, after what felt like 2000 years of sliding back down the dunes, around 5pm, still with 4 or so miles to go. I melted into a mossy bench, shakily unwrapped my secret Mars bar and shoved the chocolatey, nougatty nectar into my face. 15 minutes of chewing later I was back on the track, winding my way into Wick, which boasts the UK's northernmost Wetherspoons. The last miles on the tarmac were hard going, but I was rewarded with a hot shower and an oversized burger at the end. With the first day done I lay on my B&B's bed, mildly high from endorphins and worrying if, much like my 5pm Mars bar, I had bitten off more than I could chew.