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J o' G Trail: Helmsdale to Brora (Postcard from Disturbia)

J o' G Trail: Helmsdale to Brora (Postcard from Disturbia)

Postby Standing Stone 81 » Wed Jun 02, 2021 12:02 pm

Route description: John o'Groats Trail: Brora to Helmsdale

Date walked: 24/05/2021

Time taken: 6 hours

Distance: 20.5 km

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So far I have been picking and choosing the best days for walking the trail. Admittedly there was a morning of fresh snow, another of strong wind but mostly I have had calm days, often with the sun shining. Time for something fresher, more akin with the mixed bag of conditions that the walker doing the trail in a single go might endure.
Helmsdale had all its cobwebs blown away as I parked at the harbour and gazed out on a leaden Moray Firth 'neath a dark grey sky. I imagine Hull Docks feels like this on a Monday morning in mid-January.

Further north I'd bemoaned a short section near Dunbeath that left the coast. An overreaction for sure but as I crossed the Helmsdale River on the A9 bridge it was time to do so again. Single track roads made their way past the houses of Gartymore where SNP posters adorned windows and the dwellings had Gaelic names. The infamous Highland Clearances still live on in the psyche here.
Nobody was about. I passed each silent home, lived in for sure, but at 6.30 on a grey morning there was likely little to be up for. An old Renault lorry with a Caithness plate caught my eye.

It had been a steady steep climb up from Helmsdale (there were no more that day) and with the grand display of yellow whins that east Sutherland is famous for I felt truly awake. Gratefully present in the world around me.
Eventually beside the trail I came to a derelict wee hoosie. I shouted as I popped my head in the door, silence replied. The roof was bowed and will one day collapse, the windows were gone. A staircase led up to nothing.

What was once a sitting room still had hearth and mantelpiece. All dead, cold and cheerless now but life finds a way even in dereliction - a tree, in fresh green leaf, growing from the middle of the floor.
Over a metal bridge on the rough track then down in to the wee settlement of Portgower. The busy A9 traffic whizzes through this place but the houses mostly turn there back on it and face the sea. Nice gardens, eggs for sale, still nobody about. I began to become aware of how little human activity I'd seen.
At this point the trail picks up the coast which is a mix of shingle, boulder, rock and sand. The air had a real tang to it, a bit of a feeding frenzy was taking place.

Between sea and railway I pressed south with the fresh wind behind me. Of geological interest there are many reefs near the shoreline here and it seemed each one had a pair of oystercatcher on guard! White breakers dashed in, the remains of lobster creels punctuated the high tide line.

The blast of a horn brought time to a timeless scene - the first southbound train of the day heading to Inverness. A Class 158 Express Sprinter if you're a trainspotter (I am) rattling along. In vain I stopped and stared, perhaps longing to see another human being, but all I saw was the waving hand of the driver. It seemed almost disembodied, the sense of isolation prevailed.
The rocky part of this coast gave way to gorgeous golden sands and Lothbeg point was now the obvious feature ahead. I wandered along the high tide line and eventually arrived at some concrete bunkers. Part of an old wartime radar station they were open to wander in though the main occupants: sheep and pigeons, had left their mark!
These cold shells were a good break from the wind and with ducting , etc still present they had an eerie sense of being just vacated. Briefly I imagined a dystopian world where only I was left to wander the ruins of the past.

There's a large and scattered caravan site by Lothbeg Point. I reckoned around fifty caravans were there though only a few cars. Awnings were up and flapping in the wind, a small turbine screamed on its post, a tattered flag bearing a skull gazed down on me. Nobody. Not a single resident did I see. A sign indicated you could just park up and someone would come along later and collect your fee. I wondered how long you might wait! As I passed the last of the caravans a child's swing-set rocked back and forth in the wind...

'If you may be offended by nudity do not pass this point' warned the blue sign affixed to an old concrete lookout. It seemed an incongruous splash of colour compared to the grey sky and sea. Perhaps this is where everyone is I suddenly thought: frolicking around on Brora's famed nudist beach! With bobble hat and red socks I figured I had found my spiritual home and eagerly scrambled down the dunes to nothing and everything. Another wonderful stretch of unspoilt golden shore which I had entirely to myself. Well when in Rome I thought...

A very fine railway bridge spans the Loth Burn. However it is of no use to this obstacle on the trail. As I stood by the edge looking at the dark peaty water flowing its last yards to the sea I could see no obvious easy way over. Eventually I settled on the best option and, with wellies on, waded in. The rounded boulders were slippy but I made it across dry, well almost dry. In spate I doubt it could be crossed like this and likely a detour inland would be necessary.
Some more concrete bunkers were encountered sunk in to the gorse-covered brae. Their brutalist appearance strangely attracted me conveying the strength of this place as it faces the sea. Then golden sand and boulder combined, the day slowly brightening. At Kintradwell I stumbled upon a crocodile:

Golf was popular in Brora that morning. At first as I entered the northern edge of the course only empty greens and the frantic flapping of the flags met me. By now I longed for deserted places. If, since Helmsdale, the apocalypse had happened then I would make toast in every kitchen in Brora whilst I waited for my end...
Then the familiar ping was heard, muttering, congratulating, humanity. I met my first fellow homosapien as I skirted the edge of the links course - I'd journeyed nearly 12 miles.
It was pleasant to get the flask out and sit by the mouth of the River Brora watching the swallows. When I stepped on the northbound train the pretty guard was the first to hear my voice since I'd set out from home. She charged me £7.30 for my pleasure!
Standing Stone 81
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