John O’ Groats made me sad.
I watched enviously as gleeful, end-to-end cyclists quaffed Champagne at the end of their ordeal, disappointed that I too had not shared in their elation this year. I was struck by the empty units of the shopping ‘village’ and the closing down, end-of-season feel of those establishments still plying for trade. And the windswept shell of the Groats hotel suggested former glories never to be revisited, despite optimism fueled by news of a regeneration master plan for the site.
I needed to escape and headed east along the coastal path. With my back turned to the quay, my mood lightened. A stiff breeze blew across from the lonely Island of Stroma and smells and sounds of the sea caused me to quicken my step.
The sky was deep blue and the crystalline air afforded views of the Orkneys and polarized the greens of lush fields, the ruddiness of the sandstone rocks and the brilliant white sand of the beaches… no, not sand, shells.
Hundreds of thousands of shells, deposited between slabs of bedrock. They crunched underfoot and the beach felt, at first, sinister… as if I was walking though some kind of marine boneyard.
The trepidation soon passed, though, and I pocketed a few. The prize on this beach (I was later to discover) is the Groatie Buckie, a type of Cowrie Shell favoured by trinket makers.
I wandered back to campsite and watched the evening descend.
As the tide advanced and the waves smashed into rocks, I counted eight lighthouses slowly blinking on near and distant shores.