driving the NC500: Inverness to John O’Groats

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Welcome back, everyone. With apologies for the slight delay, but with an agreeable tone that we can still be friends and also appreciate the fact you’re not reading this eight years after the event like my usual holiday entries, I present to you part three of my solo trip around the NC500. If you’re new to this, that’s fine, just relax and I’ll be gentle, and of course you could take a moment to avail yourself of the previous entries:

They’re both hilarious, blistering accounts that will make you laugh, cry and evaluate your life choices (according to my mum) and, in much the same vein as this entry, I would love to know your thoughts. Comments, messages, knickers sent in the mail, whatever you like. Is it too detailed? Not detailed enough? You want to see more photos? Let me know! But for now, get a coffee, shut your gob and enjoy. I’ll caveat this one as usual by saying that this isn’t your usual travel blog where someone waxes lyrical about stormy seas and windswept vistas, but rather concentrates on the minutiae for altogether too many words and with too much personal detail.

On that note, the morning began with me doing exactly that – concentrating on the minutiae in bed, having pre-empted my eighty-seven alarms and managed to wake at the crack of dawn. In the absence of the usual twenty stone of farting gristle I have lying next to me, who will gamely offer to lend an orifice as long as I make him breakfast after, I had to sort myself out. And readers, I did, and once I had scattered a half billion little versions of me all over the place (imagine being one of those for a second: you burst into being ready to go find an egg, and instead you’re left gasping for air amongst a forest of chest hair and Lotus Biscoff crumbs – it’s no life, this) I squelched to the shower, ready to wash off my sin and face the day.

Except, no. As previously referenced, showering in Scotland seems to be an abstract possibility: every single shower (bar one) I ended up with would have struggled to extinguish a lit match. This one was by far the worst – I turned it on, fiddled with the knob and received nothing but a splutter for my trouble. THEN I HAD A SHOWER AYOOOOOOO. No, shush, don’t be silly, but I would have been wetter had I stuck the bit where Mufasa dies in the Lion King on Youtube and used my tears to work up a lather. A far from ideal situation when you’ve got body hair like me – my stomach looked as though someone had drowned a cat in PVA glue. I dabbed the best I could with the towel they provided (I say towel, I assume it was an off-cut from the master towel they kept locked away), got dressed, sat on the edge of the bed to listen to my stomach crinkle under my t-shirt, then went to breakfast.

In keeping with yesterday’s theme of there being no-one in the hotel, I breakfasted entirely alone, save for the very attentive and slightly frazzled waiter. I was confused as to why he seemed so harried given I was the only one in the breakfast room, but an answer revealed itself moments later. Having politely and warmly taken my breakfast order, fussed about with the coffee and presented an entirely charming image at 7am in the morning, he went into the kitchen and seemingly started a ferocious argument with half of Scotland about the fact the boiler was broken. I’m not one to listen to other’s drama: it was all I could do to gum my toast lest the crunch I made from chewing it drowned out an important detail. Still, explains the crap shower. Breakfast was delicious – I’ve seen some snotty comments about the fact they use those ‘terrible pink cylinder’ sausages but I’m all for it. If I’m having a fried breakfast I want mush and fat and grease on my chin, not a lecture about how they source the bacon from pigs that have a fortnightly bus-trip out to National Trust properties to discuss culture. Not enough toast, but then there’s never enough toast. Until the day I’m gazing at my beloved across a table upon which a rotary toaster and at least four different loaves of bread has been placed, I’ll never be truly happy.

I went back to the room, picked up my things, emptied their ‘welcome tray’ into my bags and made for the car. As with previous drives, getting on the road early and putting some miles in would give me the chance to stop wherever I wanted, and I thoroughly recommend you do the same thing. It frees up your evening too, which in my case was very important because would they even air The Chase if I wasn’t there bellowing the answers at home? The road is 120 miles along the A9 and A99 and will give you the first opportunity to see what the NC500 is about, given it hugs the coastline for most of the drive and gives you several chances to test the clutch in your car and the swearing in your vocabulary. It’s terrific. I had accommodation booked at John O’Groats with a check-in available at 5pm so I had all the time in the world. But first, some progress please.

I managed 5.4 miles. Spot the recurring joke in these travelogues yet? In my defence, I was being told – nay, instructed – that I must stop at a Harry Gow bakery and try a dream ring. Spotting a turn-off for a takeaway Harry Gow, I bustled in and got myself one. Now here’s the curious thing: despite having tried one, despite having a photo in front of me eating it, I still can’t quite remember exactly what it is. My best guess is a sweet bun cut in half, filled with cream and glazed. Either way, it was delicious and once the sharp pains in my right shoulder had subsided, I was glad to have tried one. Now, I know what you must be thinking – where’s the obvious joke? Well, readers, if you think I’m that predictable, you’re absolutely right: it certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve smashed a cream ring in whilst parked up in a layby, and nor was it the first time I’ve ever driven away from a bank of lorries with my lips glazed. Sigh. Sometimes I feel trapped by my own reputation.

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You wish you were this classy: me smashing a Dream Ring on the NC500

Leaving Inverness exposed the first issue with this trip and one that you must bear in mind: mobile reception. It’s absolutely gash. I’m with Three and for most of the trip going forward until I got back to Inverness, the signal was patchy at best and more often than not, non-existent. This came to light when my friend called for a catch-up and I had to sensitively ask if he had developed a stutter in my absence. So if I may offer up a tip: download the relevant Google Maps section for your trip whilst you have Wifi so you don’t get lost, make sure you have a few Spotify lists downloaded to your phone, and then chuck it in the back and forget about it. It’s actually a nice feeling, being cut off, but if you’re dependent on your phone for work, you will absolutely struggle. You can check the strength of your signal right here, so you can.

First pit-stop, after about thirty miles of driving, was the charming little seaside town of Dornoch (and just up the road, the village of Embo). My boss, once she had recovered from the shock of me asking for yet more time off to gallivant, had earnestly told me that I must visit. For once, I did what I was told, and was very glad to have done so. The beach was utterly magnificent – miles upon miles of pristine sands and blue water and, even better, I had it mostly to myself. There’s that setting off early point again, and it’s one I am going to keep repeating because it made such a difference. There’s a little car park right by the beach and good clear paths (part of a golf course) along the sands if you aren’t up to walking on the beach. I took some photos that I’d never look at again, wrote my name and number in the sand with a shell in case I did a Harold Bishop and set off walking. I’m a terrible walker – very much the type of muttonhead who will cast out in one direction, forget to check the tides and wonder why I’m suddenly cut off from the shore and in dire need of rescue – but I was confident the tide was heading out, so cracked on.

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The beach at Dornoch on the NC500

I had the faint memory of Embo being nearby so decided to walk there – forgetting because of course I did that I would need to walk back – and although my feet were aching at the end of it (just over 6 miles) it was a lovely morning out. More sensible folk would elect to take a coat and a bottle of water but not me, I bravely ploughed on with two cans of Monster in case of emergency. But honestly, there’s something quite terrific about an early morning beach walk, especially when the beach isn’t full of shitting dogs and parents smacking their beetroot-faced children. Even better when you can caterwaul along to Cher and nobody but the odd passing dog-walker can pass judgement. I think I may have took a wrong turn at Embo – it seemed as though it was just a caravan park so I didn’t explore – but the round trip is one I recommend.

As I returned to the car alongside the golf course I reminded once more that there is no sport more responsible for questionable fashion choices than golf. I mean, I genuinely don’t understand it. I’m not one to judge anyone’s sartorial choices – I look as though I wandered into the ASOS warehouse with my arms open and eyes shut – but I’ve never seen so many awful pastel trousers, ill-fitting Ben Sherman shirts and smugly self-satisfied smiles. We recently had cause to stay in an actual golf resort and the only good thing I can say about all the men walking around was that it must be nice to be so confident that you can match the volume of your trousers to the volume of the voice you use to rah-rah to your business colleagues. We had a balcony room which overlooked the golf course and could hear every word of their oneupmanship and gasconade and it was a genuine fucking torture. No wonder their wives were off shagging their personal trainers.

Please, if you’re a golf player, remember the rule of twochubbycubs: if we’re slagging something off, we aren’t talking about you. Mind, if you are a golf player, you’ll probably be talking about yourself anyway, so swings and roundabouts.

Once back in Dornoch I took the opportunity to look around the town and buy a keepsake to stick in our games room. Again, Facebook came through with suggestions and peer pressure sent me to the welcoming arms of Tartan Creations. I’m starting to become aware that if people on Facebook had suggested taking up heroin I’d have had a belt around my arm quicker than you could say ‘least it’s not round my neck’. Nevertheless, it was a good suggestion and Yvonne and James entertained my nonsense for a good ten minutes before I bought a pillbox to keep my multivitamins in and admonished the Anderson tartan. If I may be serious for a moment: one of the best parts of this holiday was chatting to the various little businesses around the NC500 who were all gearing up to welcome people back after what must have been a bloody shite year thanks to COVID. If you do visit, make sure you visit these businesses: buy a trinket, or a coffee, or something. Businesses need it.

I pointed the car North and decided, for once, to keep driving – I had planned to stop at Whaligoe Steps but read online that it was shut whilst they strengthen the stones – apparently they were sick of people walking all over them. Boom! You can imagine how distraught I was at having to skip a 360-step climb, can’t you? I did stop for a moment in a little nearby harbour town to catch my breath and managed to clatter my head off a harbour wall – my first and only injury of the trip.

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That’s really quite something for me, mind you, I’m tremendously accident prone. I once misjudged my own doorstep leaving the house and pitched myself head-first into the front lawn. My masculine scream of terror would have given the neighbours something to laugh at, though, which saved them looking for another source of comedy for a couple of years. I tittered when I drove through a town called Occumster – I presumed they had put out a welcome sign for me – and I spent an hour or two looking around Wick for something to do. There wasn’t anything I fancied aside from taking in the world’s shortest street, Ebenezer Place. It’s just over 2m long, you know, and I can’t in all good conscience neglect to tell you that it took a matter of moments to see everything it had to offer. To give you a sense of perspective as to my struggles to find something to do, the shortest street experience is rated #9 on ‘best things to do in Wick’ on Tripadvisor, with second place being a distillery. Stuck, I asked people for ideas of things to do and the unanimous verdict was ‘leave‘. Harsh, Scotland.

But leave I did, after a quick stop at the local Lidl to pick up some groceries for my overnight stay. John O’Groats is another fifteen miles or so up the road and it is a curious approach – the landscape gets more remote as you drive, save for the occasional coach of tourists passing you in a spray of rainwater. John O’Groats is known as the most Northerly point of the mainland United Kingdom – it isn’t, that belongs to Dunnet Head just up the road – but it has a gift shop and an easily accessible road, so make do. For the record, Land’s End gets touted as the bottom of England, which it isn’t. It is, however, awful. At least the Visitor Centre is – I’m still bitter.

I pulled into the car park at around 4pm and cognisant of the fact I was meeting my host at 5pm, I decided to mooch about and see what is on offer. Not a lot is the honest appraisal: if you’re heading here expecting thrills and spills, you’ll be sadly disappointed. There’s a few shops, a small harbour and a couple of coffee places. But, that’s the charm of somewhere like this – there’s no need to make it flashy or have crappy arcades everywhere, and it’s all the better for it. I did take a picture of the famous sign, of course, and had a walk along the front to look at the brightly coloured houses which looked over the water to Orkney. Realising that I was running out of footpaths and not fancying slipping around on the rocks, I wandered back to the car park and into Stacks, a lovely little coffee shop selling proper coffee and all sorts of terribly deliciously gooey pieces. I told myself it was just going to be a coffee but I walked out of there with a brownie the size of a paving slab. It was scrumptious and although I planned to save some for later, I scoffed the lot sat in my car. What can I say? I’m a greedygobblegannet! Yesss.

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Having time of my life on the NC500 (I really was)

One thing John O’Groats does have is one of those gift shops which is rammed full of things you wonder could ever sell. I’m not taking the piss here – I promise – but has anyone ever wandered into a shop and felt they needed to buy a shortbread tin decorated with a picture of the Queen, a CD collection of Beatles B-Sides but imagined by a bag-and-pan-pipes duo, or a three foot cow made of coir, or any other number of genuinely baffling keepsakes? I say it all with love: I adore a good mooch around, and was thankful for all the distraction. Here’s the thing though: it’s all for naught, because you can no longer buy those giant pencils with the rubber on the end that every kid in school used to get when they went away on holiday. Maybe just our family, actually, we were told it was a good gift. But then I was also told if I picked at my bellybutton my arse would fall off, so who can say?

I bought a postcard, was told I couldn’t use contactless unless I paid a small fee, so immediately bought myself a tin of Queen-branded shortbread to take me over the limit. That’s how they get you! Another NC500 tip though: carry coins in your car. I use my phone for everything and there was a couple of occasions when it came to parking and needed coins and it was a ballache, so think on. If you’re proactive like me, you’ll schedule a weekly trip to the shops in your partner’s car so you can take all of their changes instead. Think on.

I could see my accommodation – a caravan on the beachfront – from the car, and the owner who I had agreed to meet bustling around outside, so went over to meet her. I’m always really quite nervous meeting new people – especially those that are going to be hosting me – but after a few moments of conversation with Caroline I was completely at ease. I promised not to set fire to the caravan and we mutually agreed that I would get rid of the tougher skidders I’d invariably leave in the toilet, and she was on her way, leaving me to explore the caravan all to myself. It was lovely! Booking a caravan to myself was always going to be a gamble: our previous adventures to a caravan park had left me a little jaundiced – but this was smashing. Very clean, tonnes of hot water, several beds to choose from. I made myself a coffee, ate all of the biscuits that Caroline had thoughtfully left out for me, and got to work checking all the cupboards and switches to see what they did. I can confidently say that if I had the money and inclination, I’d cheerfully live in a caravan, and I know Paul would be on board because to him and his shortarse build, it must be like living in a normal sized house. If you were looking for somewhere to stay for an evening, you’ll find no better than Caroline’s caravan, and you can book it for yourself right here. Hell, you can even read my little review for more details.

It stands to reason that I would enjoy a caravan holiday, thinking about it. Back when I a child we used to take caravan and camping holidays all the time and indeed, it was in a caravan that I took my first steps. There’s a photo floating around at my parents of me standing at a caravan door with a face like a smacked arse – my parents had ducked out for a few minutes leaving me with my nana and as they left, I toddled to the door to see where they were going. Knowing my childhood I was probably experiencing nicotine withdrawal from not being around the fug of smoke that accompanied my parents at all times, but even so. Flash forward a good many years and I spent a couple of weeks a year holidaying with my mate at his family caravan in Montreuil-sur-Mer. I can’t remember much of that save for the fact I once got absolutely mashed on French weed, freaked out and was calmed down by my friend asking me to tell him all the recent Bad Girls storylines. That was a great holiday mind – the same holiday where I finally cropped my long hair off (after setting it on fire a few weeks previous) and walked straight past my mother in the airport who didn’t recognise me without my happening and fresh Severus Snape locks. To be fair, I didn’t recognise her either: she’d decided to get rid of her moustache for the summer.

Anyway, back to the present. I sat and typed up my stories, had a cold tin of soup (I was too scared to figure out how the gas hob worked: I didn’t want to accidentally torch the place or suffocate in my sleep, so I thought it best to leave it) and watched Coronation Street. Well, tried to, but as wank as it sounds, my eyes kept being drawn to the beach outside and I realised I wanted to be back outside. I’d spotted a road up to a viewpoint as I was driving into town so I hopped in the car and made my way – slowly, lots of sheep – up to Duncansby Head. I can’t recommend this enough. From the car park is a lovely walk across the fields to some of the most dramatic cliffs I have ever seen and with dusk coming in, it was just beautiful.

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The view to the cliffs – possibly one of my favourite points on the NC500

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Dusk over Orkney

I sat and watched the sea for a bit, gave Paul a call to make sure he hadn’t died, then watched the sun go down. It was magical, and it only got better as the stars started blinking in. There’s absolutely zero light pollution up there and a blanket of stars was my reward for sitting on the grass for a couple of hours. I didn’t want to go back to the caravan, but even my arse gets numb in the end. After a final mooch around the harbour in the dark, and conscious of the fact I had another early start in the morning, I went ‘home’ and prepared for bed.

Now, I don’t scare easily, but even I was a little nervous about being out in the middle of nowhere (sort of) in a caravan with patchy mobile signal. A friend of mine had encouraged me to watch Under the Skin that night – naturally I didn’t but I had read the Wiki synopsis about how she kills people in Scottish caravans – so I was a smidge on edge. But good news – since the house fire, I’ve been given sleeping tablets for the very rare occasion I can’t sleep and thankfully, I’d remembered to bring one. I’m a total blurt when it comes to swallowing pills so I had to go and fetch a glass of water to chase it down but in doing so, I managed to drop the pill on the floor where it bounced, rolled and promptly disappeared into those little floor vents. Super. I did swear an awful amount and then realised that such anger would serve no real purpose, so slunk back to bed.

I was just dozing off when I heard a woman’s voice shouting ‘BENNY’ right outside the window. Over and over and over, in various pitches. It was surreal and didn’t abate for a good ten minutes (mind nor did I, she had wrecked the moment) and I was just on the cusp of flinging open the window, probably to certain doom, and shouting ‘Agnetha, Björn and Anni-Frid, any other bloody questions’ when I heard the scratch of tiny paws and her Benny came back to her. Drama solved, I drifted off to sleep, and can honestly say it was one of the best night’s sleep I’ve had in a long time. All that fresh Scottish air, it really gets to you.

And that, readers, is where I shall leave it for now. If you’ve enjoyed it, please do let me know. Otherwise, see you soon!

J

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