There’s not much to see at John O’Groats, the second-most famous of Britain’s extremities. The approach is promising: the sea glittering on the horizon, shadowed with the first islands of Orkney; a succession of settlements, handsome in a sturdy, weather-defying sort of way, until you pass the town of Wick and a dispersed scatter of grey houses until the road leads you to the cliff edge, where…
They’ve tried really hard to make John O’Groats look more presentable.
There’s the Inn, restored and reopened in 2013 after standing empty and abandoned for decades in a way that screamed “Amityville Horror”. There are more shops than ever before, and more holiday homes nearby. There’s that view of Orkney, of course. And...did I mention the shops?
It’s frequently dubbed the most northern spot in the UK (it isn’t - that’s Dunnet Head, a few miles to the east) and the end of the longest unbroken land route across Britain (not true, for reasons that will be explained shortly) - but that’s usually where the superlatives run out, unless they’re the impolite kind.
After millions of pounds of investment after it won an architectural award for Worst Town In Scotland, John O’Groats still looks like an industrial park with a harbour bolted onto one end, with all the romance that sentence conveys. It’s hardly a thrilling destination to arrive at - which is tragic considering it’s the finish-line of the UK’s most famous overland journey.
So, Edinburgh would be perfect. Or perhaps if geography was dictated by poetic license, John O’Groats would have its own castle looming far overhead, its own magnificently beautiful sandstone townhouses, its own Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat overwhelming the skyline. That’d be a fitting sight to mark the end of a 874-mile journey from Land’s End, Cornwall.
But Edinburgh is the gateway into Scotland - and the only way to end up there is to circle the country.
If straight lines are more your thing and you want that “I’ve reached the edge of the world” feeling that the ancient Romans must have felt about the entire island, your options are limited.
There’s Land’s End to John O’Groats, sure, with 2 weeks of cycling to keep you busy - but that route isn’t straight. Draw a line from the southwest tip of Cornwall in England to the northeastern corner of Scotland, and its 603-mile (970km) length will cross a lot of Irish Sea. To make this a land route by road, you have to detour for hundreds of miles - and most off-road walkers stretch it out to 1,200 miles for scenery-enjoying purposes.
Yes, Land’s End to John O’Groats is an epic journey - but you can only describe it as the longest in the UK with a bit of hand-waving, and by allowing deviations of your route - and “longest land route with the least amount of wiggling in either direction” sounds like what it is - a bit of a cop-out.
But then there’s the other side, the criss to its counterpart’s cross - and unlike its rival, it’s across land the whole way.
Bill Bryson wrote about it in 2015, in his endearingly grumpy travelogue The Road To Little Dribbling. By laying a ruler across a map of the UK, he found a land-bound route that connected the English town of Bognor Regis in the extreme southeast with the impressive-sounding Cape Wrath in the Highlands, at the most north-westerly point in the whole of the UK.
It covered 569 miles (just 34 miles short of its straight-lined opposite) - and unable to find another name for it, he dubbed it the Bryson Line.
It’s since been turned into a fundraising route to drum up money for worthy charities (always a sign that a walk has made it into the national consciousness) - and, of course, it’s helped Bill Bryson sell a lot of books.
But it’s still a distant second to Land’s End-John O’Groats in terms of publicity, which is surprising considering how closely its route is to both the capital cities of England and Wales (and throwing in Manchester and Inverness for good measure). You’d think it’d be more popular. Maybe it will be, and it’s too early to say.
I mean, take the name “Cape Wrath”. Could it sound a more dramatic destination? And when you finally arrive, you find it’s almost as impressive as the name suggests - a 107 square mile moorland wilderness lined with colossal sea cliffs and dotted with abandoned stone buildings that mark the disintegration of former crofting communities. It looks like an adventurer’s destination, the kind of place you’d have to work hard to arrive at.
(In fact, the origins of the name are a little more prosaic: it seems to be taken from the Old Norse hvarf, meaning “turning point” - suggesting Bill Bryson wasn’t the first to recognise its potential as a journey’s ending).
Cape Wrath attracts around 6,000 visitors per year for its natural beauty and abundant wildlife - but the best way to appreciate it is by approaching from the sea. At nearly 1,000 feet high, the sea cliffs are the tallest in mainland Britain, and on gloomy days they look spectacularly moody.
(Gloomy days are a bit of a feature in these parts. In January 1983, Cape Wrath broken meteorological records in the worst possible way by having just 38 minutes of sunshine for the whole month.)
If you’ve spent weeks struggling across the UK - and climbing terrain that sums to an elevation greater than an ascent of Everest from sea-level - then Cape Wrath will satisfy.
Ruined houses and a thousand feet of nothingness to mark the edge of the world? That’s more like it.
Join us as we sail around the rugged coastline of Scotland, Shetland and Orkney, departing on the 19th May 2020.