driving the NC500: John O’Groats to Durness

I’m so terribly sorry: as usual, life has managed to get in the way of my travel posts, and I know there’s a few people asking for the next bit of my NC500 story. Now, in the small hours of the morning with a snoring dog on my feet and a grumpy husband hopefully choking on his neck-wattle in his sleep, I can at least get a new entry out to you. As usual I will caveat this travel story by saying you know exactly what you’re getting with my writing style, so actually, no caveat at all. Enjoy!

New to this? The previous entries are here:

You rejoin me at John O’Groats, where I woke in my caravan overlooking the sea, forever searching for Benny. Having expected an uncomfortable sleep given the small bed and the fact that I am equally wide as I am tall, I was very pleasantly surprised to wake up utterly refreshed and full of vim. I shook the worst of the pillow-crinkles out of my face, took a shower in the surprisingly roomy bathroom, making sure to use all of the hot water and toiletries to really get the cost benefit from my stay, and then set about tidying up. We’ve discussed at length my insecurities about people thinking I’m an untidy guest and this was no different, though luckily it only takes moments to clean a caravan. I genuinely don’t know why Paul’s mother complains: it must make a nice change from running the hook-a-duck stall.

Having exhausted all that John O’Groats had to offer (I considered paying 10p for a go on the public toilet ride but it was closed for maintenance), I pointed the car west for the next part of my journey, the ninety or so miles along the top of Scotland to Durness, where I had booked a cabin to myself for the next two days. I had no real plans for this trip other than to drive and stop wherever I fancied on the way, and, knowing Durness was a very small village with limited things to do, to stop at Thurso on the way and stock up on some bits to eat. First, however, I wanted to get to the actual highest point of Scotland, Dunnet Head, so on I went.

The roads were like this all the way. Glorious!

Now I’m going to be honest with you here, and you’ll doubtless think I’m a philistine, but I seem to be missing the gene that makes me gasp with wonder when visiting the ‘highest’ or ‘lowest’ of any places. The display boards will breathlessly (makes sense, given the thinner air) advise you that you’re standing at the most Northern tip, but…am I missing something? The sea and the cliffs were majestic, but they were four miles down the road too. I have the same feeling in art galleries: whilst everyone is stroking their beards and making cum-noises, you’ll find me itching to get downstairs and in the gift shop where I can buy a rainbow rubber and look at the dollies. I did have the place to myself which was pleasant: I can imagine it all feels terribly different once the coaches full of shufflers turn up. If it is busy season, I recommend following the tip in my last blog entry and head to Duncansby Head just outside John O’Groats. Speaking of busy, I did spot a cavalcade of motorhomes coming over the horizon and knew then I had to get on the road and in front of them. It seems my early-start-to-beat-the-traffic scheme didn’t have room to accomomdate a quick hand-shandy in the shower of a morning.

Ah yes, the dreaded motorhome. If you read reviews or tales online, you will see the topic crop up over and over. They’re clearly a fun way to do the NC500 but boy are they a bone of contention. See, the majority of the NC500 takes place on twisty, narrow roads with very little opportunity for overtaking if you get stuck behind somewhere slow. Indeed, on the single-track portions of the road (which are bountiful and will, in places, lead to your bumhole chewing open the seat cushion underneath) you may be required to reverse back to a passing place in order to allow oncoming traffic to pass. It’s not an easy drive in a Golf, let alone a set of axles with a Barratt home attached, so you can imagine it just takes one stressy bit of driving, a motorhome to get stuck, and then the roads are blocked. That, coupled with the fact that some motorhomers decide the best way to appreciate the beautiful scenery is to scatter litter and set forth a mini-flood of turds from their septic tank – well, there’s a reputation.

All I will say: if you’re looking to hire a motorhome and never more so than when it’s your first time driving one, be sure to do your research. Take it for a spin around the car park when you pick it up, have a crack at reversing into a bay, make sure the chip pan isn’t going when you swerve around the corner. Far easier to hone your skills on a flat piece of asphalt than it is 1000ft up in the hills with some manic Geordie shouting and bawling behind you because he’s got a box of Magnums melting on the passenger. At some places you will need to deviate off the main route to take a motorhome-friendly route: don’t be a dick and think you know better than the locals. Oh, remember I said that, a little later down the line…

Although I opted to take the car this time, I can see the allure of a motorhome. Back in 2018 when Paul and I did our tour of Canada, we hired a motorhome (more of a converted van to be fair) to drive around Vancouver Island, and it was absolutely brilliant. There’s something super about being able to pull over and make a bacon sandwich at a moment’s notice. It took a good couple of hours to get used to given neither of us had driven anything bigger than a Micra at that point, and Paul had left his powered-by-pixie-dust bumper stickers at home, but we soon got the hang of it and were tootling along at a steady 60mph whilst all our belongings rattled around in the back. I remember driving to one campsite down in Bamberton, parking up, making dinner and sitting outside and just being in absolute awe at the freedom of the whole experience. That was, until two ladies who looked as though they organised dogfights on the sly pitched up in a motorhome the size of a housing estate and told us we were in their spot. We remonstrated that if we were in their spot, could they not just park in our spot which was immediately adjacent, but they were having none of it. We had to pack everything up and drive 10ft down the lane whilst they set about setting up their pitch. All sorts of different compartments popped out the side of their motorhome – little bed on the top, pop-out kitchen, walk-in wardrobe, air traffic control tower, the usual. At one point we caught the eye of one of them whilst she lifted the back of the motorhome up with one arm and realised we were right not to argue.

Of course, us being us, our motorhome experience was never going to be without incident. My favourite involves my husband’s cooking. We had arrived at Crystal Cove campground just outside of Tofino, absolutely knackered from a very long, very slow and very rainy drive. That’s the problem with a driving holiday of course: you never get anywhere because you pull over to gasp at the scenery (you) or to stock up at every fudge shop, grocery store or tat-emporium you pass (us). We had checked in with a friendly chap (it’s Canada, everyone is friendly – it wouldn’t have surprised me if I had been mugged in the street and then driven to the hospital by the attacker in a cloud of polite apology) on the front desk who explained where everything was, cheerily wished us a pleasant stay and then reminded us that we mustn’t leave food out in the evening because they had bears in the woods nearby. Us, as confirmed homosexuals, made a raunchy joke at this (forever in the hope that just one of these bearded lumberjack blokes that are everywhere in Canada would join us in the van) and drove off to our pitch to get some sleep. I woke in the early evening to find Paul outside washing up in the tiny sink round the back of the van. I remember praising him for his proactive stance on keeping the place tidy before I realised he was washing out the little soup pan. Yet, there was no soup to be seen. We’d bought a tin of beef soup a little way down the road and I assumed he’d kept me some aside, but no. No, not Paul: he had been cooking the soup when a giant bug had dropped into the pan from above and, in a fit of Paul-level hysteria, had thrown the soup into the forest beyond.

And yet, despite me explaining that bears seek food out from a great distance and that the rich, meaty smell of shop-bought beef soup may not be the best thing to have immediately behind our bed for the night, he remained entirely non-plussed and unapologetic and indeed, somehow it was my fault for not being awake enough to assist with cooking. You can imagine how such an exchange went down so no further elaboration is needed, save to say had a bear attacked us in the night, he would have needed to wait for us to defrost, given the bed was full of cold shoulder that evening. That, and the noise of me hyperventilating every time I heard a noise outside, such as I was that I was about to have my head clawed entirely away from my neck. Paul slept like a log.

Apology face

Redemption face

Aside from that, and the night where Paul opened the side-door to have a long luxurious midnight wee straight into the woods and then neglected to shut the door properly so we woke up ever-so-slightly more underwater than any reasonable person would like, it was a fantastic experience. We only had one moment of abject terror when it came to driving, and frankly I can’t be held responsible for forgetting to apply the handbrake and having the van roll onto the beach behind us like a mechanical creeper. It could happen to anyone.

Apologies, that was a sidetrack and a half. Where were we? Motorhomes. If you’re doing the NC500, you’ll spend a lot of time staring furiously at the back of them as they meander along the country roads and even more time peering anxiously at the top of blind summits as a Stannah Luxe or a Speedking Aneurysm or a Comet Male-Pattern-Baldness (and for one particularly brilliant moment, a large RIMOR – presumably because he was so close behind me he could stick his tongue up my hoop) trundles over, the owners seemingly blinded to your presence on the road. That’s understandable, the chandeliers probably get in the way. You’ll come to spot that for a good 95% of the time, you’ll see the same three types of occupants:

  • a tiny elderly couple who look like a box of Sun Maid raisins squashed into miniature linen slacks (these are the hard ones to spot, as you can normally only see the fluffs of white hair poking out above the dash) – they’re determined to get where they need to be before Dignitas call and won’t let the fact that their other form of transport is a never-out-of-third-gear Honda Jazz get in the way;
  • a newly married couple, flushed with the smug look of people who only interrupt their lovemaking schedule to post pictures of them doing the finger-claw heart-shape pose in front of every conceivable landmark; and
  • the experienced travellers – they’ve got sun-hats, they’ve got stickers, they’ve got eighteen different ways of telling you you’re going the wrong way at the wrong time with the wrong people, they’ve got a sunny disposition and boy, have they got stories.

Naturally as a bitterly anti-social person who wanted time to himself I avoided them all. If you’re worried that you haven’t spotted one of those three examples on your trip, fret not: simply pull into a layby and wait a few moments for the dust to settle, and a horde of motorhomes will turn up to slough some dumps out onto the grass and thoughtfully adorn the hedges with beskiddered tissues. Actually – a good time to mention this. The only rude person, indeed negative encounter at all, on this trip came via a motorhome. I had parked up in the middle of Arse-End, Nowhere and was thoroughly enjoying the crisp mountain air by filling my lungs with Marlboro smoke. I know, it’s a disgusting habit, but it stops me picking my bum. Naturally, no sooner had my car locked when some tatty old motorhome turns up behind me. This will happen an awful lot, you know: I think it’s nothing more than fear of missing out – people see someone pulled over in a layby and they assume they must be there to look at something interesting, so in they follow. This happened enough times when I stopped for a wee that I considered having some postcards of my cock printed.

As I enjoyed the moment, a young lady stepped out from the motorhome on a cloud of patchouli oil and smugness, and immediately fixed me with a stare. I gave her my most winning smile and she looked at me as though I’d offered up a quick shag and a critique of her shoes. Then, somewhat aggressively, she hooted to her husband that ‘oh it’s laaahveley out here, if only we could enjoy unpolluted air’ and again gave me a look that could have stopped a clock. Realising that she was taking umbrage that I was having a cigarette in a place you’d need to drive for miles to see another person, I nevertheless stubbed it out, but still she persisted staring daggers. I had to have another three cigarettes to calm my nerves whilst they left in a cloud of blue smoke. The fact that she was driving a diesel-belching motorhome which looked as though its last service was by Peter Sutcliffe and was therefore far more deleterious to the surroundings seemed entirely not to register with her. Poor delicate flower. I do hope their tyres didn’t blow out and send them plunging over the cliffs.

Crikey: that was actually a side-track within a side-track, wasn’t it? Let us get back on the road. When I arrived in Thurso I did indeed stop briefly to get groceries, before realising that it was a Saturday and therefore the supermarket was awash with angry looking sorts smacking their children. I bought an entirely sensible eight pack of Monster Ultra and a bunch of bananas. I’ll let you guess which of those got tucked into a side pocket on the door and promptly forgotten about. I can see from TripAdvisor that there’s some terrific things to do around Thurso, but as we were just emerging out of hard lockdown, most were closed. There was North Coast Watersports but I figured that if I turn up there in my bright yellow Fred Perry, they’d think I was taking the piss. I drove on.

What a drive, though. I’m running out of superlatives to describe the NC500 and for that I apologise, but the road hugs the coast for most of the drive, and where it doesn’t, it’s running alongside a loch, and quite honestly every turn and dip of the road reveals a glory anew. For all that I ridiculed the frequent stoppers, this is exactly what you will and ought to do. Greater writers than me will wax lyrical about the beauty and indeed, if you’re bored, have a look on google maps and follow the A838 along. It’s a wonder. I was lucky to have the road largely to myself and, with my music playing and the sea air on my face, I felt brilliant. There’s something unique about the remoteness of Scotland that sings to my soul: I don’t doubt for a second that if twochubbycubs goes tits-up and Paul shuffles off the mortal coil, I’ll end up living up there, eking out a Hannah Hauxwell existence and shouting at motorhomes. Hey, as long as I’ve got my Billie Eilish tapes and 4,000,000 fags, I’ll be grand.

I stopped at a little coffee van called Coast just outside of Thurso, it having been recommended to me the night before. The owner was one of those locals who you just want to stay and chat with for hours: super friendly and immediately picked up on the tiniest sliver of Geordie accent I have. I asked for a beach recommendation and she pointed me down the road to Farr, which worked for me because I could send Paul so many WhatsApp messages about how Farr away I was, so near so Farr, I’ve come so Farr (maybe not the last one, there were sheep about and I don’t need that reputation). We gabbled on at each other and she managed to upsell me a doughnut, which took me all of four seconds to demolish. The coffee, conversation and sugar were all delicious and I said I’d mention her here, though she refused to be in the photo with my giant moon face, so make do.

Luckily, my head not only blocked out the owner, but also a passing coach.

Farr Beach was lovely, as you can see

The fields nearby were full of lambs gambolling about (how do they hold the cards?) and I was joined briefly by a dog-walker with a giant poodle, which, given I didn’t have my glasses on, I mistook for a giant ewe rushing towards me. Gave me quite a fright, I can tell you – must have seen my sheep-shagging joke a bit earlier. Other than that, I had the place to myself, so it was the usual beach-routine: write a mean joke about my husband in the sand, do a Madge Bishop style HAAAAAAROLD into the sea, and then on I went. Passing through the village of Tongue and resisting the urge to buy a fridge magnet, I was hit with overwhelming déjà vu as I passed over the causeway. I texted Ole Vera Stanhope to find out why only to discover that we’d taken the exact same road when I was wee. To be fair, it was hard to see the headrest in front of us when travelling in our parents’ car, given both parents took any moment where they weren’t lighting, smoking or extinguishing a cigarette as a personal affront.

Mother also reminded me that it was nearby where my dad chose to almost kill us rather than give in to someone who wasn’t using the passing places correctly. It transpires that, after a few hours of driving us about, he was short on nerves and patience. I don’t know why: I’m forever a wonderful passenger at the best of times, providing helpful navigation hints and reminders of what the brake is for. Paul loves it: his thin lips convey all I need to know. I can’t imagine that was different back in the day. Anyway, on a single track road no less, we were travelling along at a reasonable lick when another car appeared on the horizon and neglected to pull into the appropriate passing place. As a quick primer, the correct etiquette with a passing place is whoever is closest to a passing place as they approach should duck in. If it is easier to reverse a couple of yards and park, you absolutely should, but never park on the wrong side of the road. My dad, absolutely fuming at this overwhelming injustice, decided the very best thing to do was to drive straight at the other car at great speed. Apparently it was a matter of centimetres before both cars swerved into their respective verges and disaster was averted and his family wasn’t wiped out. I wish I could remember this as vividly as my mother describes it, but I was too busy being hotboxed in the back. Luckily, I haven’t inherited my parents tendencies towards driving recklessly and smoke-choking people in my car.

A little outside of Tongue was Moine House, a derelict house that sits on the outskirts of a giant peat bog. Over the years it has been covered in all sorts of fruity graffiti and is absolutely worth a look if you’re passing by. Top tip: don’t do what I did – I hoisted myself up and through the open window, splitting my jeans in the process, before realising I could have just as easily let myself in through the open door immediately opposite.

She’s been all around the world, but still can’t find her baby. Poor cow.

Then, the road loops around the edge of Loch Eriboll for what was the absolute best drive I’ve ever done. It’s a good twenty-five miles of windy, open road that takes in bits of mountain, loch-side views and forests. The glorious part: you could see well ahead of you and I had it to myself for the most part. At the start of the year I traded in my little shitbucket Citreon for a Golf R and this was the first time I’ve ever been able to drive it like it’s supposed to be driven. Of course, exercise caution: keep an eye on the road and don’t speed, but yep. About ten miles in I became aware of a line of supercars roaring up behind me – apparently you can rent them from Inverness for this exact drive – and I pulled over to let them past. All of the drivers looked exactly like you’d expect – beetroot red faces that you know voted Leave so hard they broke the pencil when they left their cross – but they were having fun. More importantly, I was able to sneak in behind them and drive knowing the road was clear in front.

Amazing.

I won’t lie: I had the best time, but I don’t encourage you to do the same. Remember, the point of the NC500 is to take in the sights and take your time. For this brief but arresting hour, I didn’t do that, but then I was too busy texting Paul to focus on the views in front of me. I’m kidding, of course, we were on a Skype call.

I knew I was arriving at Durness when I started seeing signs for ‘COCOA MOUNTAIN’ and thought it was awfully kind of them to put out a welcome banner. I know I made a similar joke a couple of entries ago, but suck it up. I’d heard tremendous things about Cocoa Mountain and was very much looking forward to the ‘best hot chocolate you’ll ever have hun bab xoxox’ and so, as I was an hour or two early to check in at my accommodation, the lovely Aiden House B&B, I parked up and walked the mile or so to the factory. They make chocolates by the way – I perhaps should have explained earlier. After forgetting to get groceries in Thurso I thought I’d be able to at least stock up on fudge and sweet things to see me through. However, I was met with a sign saying they were shut. I think, had you been within a five mile radius, you could actually hear my heart break. And listen, you think that’s disappointing? I only learned as I was leaving Durness a couple of days later that a gay German porn-star lived there. Probably for the best though, I’m not svelte enough to get away with being a peeping tom.

And that heartbreak is as good a place as any to leave this. I feel I ought to apologise – I’m conscious that my tale of Scotland featured two sidetracks into unnecessary territory, but if you think of my writing style as a metaphor for the NC500 itself, then it all makes perfect sense, no? And plus, leaving it here will rile up the owners of Aiden House something chronic because they’ll be itching to see what I write about them. Spoiler: it’s wonderful, of course.

I promise not to leave it so long.

Jx

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