I'd half expected at the very end of this trip to feel a bit deflated, a little sad that it was all over. In the event, I felt exuberant.
Arriving in John O'Groats today was the culmination of an idea I had a couple of years ago and months and months of careful planning, and you know what? It felt great!
I'd left Inverness at 10.15 this morning for what was always going to be one of the simplest journeys of the whole trip – bus from Inverness to Wick, then bus from Wick to John O'Groats. Throughout the 29 days of travelling that this crazy venture of mine has entailed, I've always enjoyed the actual process of travelling, especially the opportunity to just look out of the window and see what was there, and today was no exception.
As soon as we had crossed Inverness' elegant suspension bridge which carries the A9 over the salt waters of the Beauly Firth, you could sense that things were a little different. The landscape was changed, lower and grassier, with wide acres of cereals and tall stands of pines. This is the Black Isle, which is not an island at all but a blunt, rounded peninsula and the people who live there appear to grow most of the food stuffs for which Scotland is famous – oats for porridge, barley for whisky, potatoes, lamb, prime steak.
We cross the Black Isle and arrive at bridge over the Cromarty Firth, offering wide views down the firth where a couple of oil drilling platforms are sitting just off-shore, suggesting a different, less rural kind of local industry but one equally important to this area's economy.
And then we round a corner and, suddenly, the countryside becomes mountainous with hillsides thickly sown with gentle silver birch and wizened oaks, bright flowering gorse and purple heather, and rounded hills running to the sea with the road carved into their sides.
We pass a number of distilleries – Invergordon, where the whisky fumes have blackened the roofs of nearby houses with the curious black mould that feeds on what they call 'The Angel's Share', Glenmorangie at Tain, Clynelish at Brora – and the road becomes narrower, steeper, and, perched on the top of huge unseen cliffs, more precipitous. One minute it feels like the bus I took to The Needles (that seems like months ago), another turn in the road and it's like the road between Newquay and Padstow in Cornwall, we turn another corner and we could easily be on Dartmoor, or in the Peak District, or on the tops of the Pennines.
After three hours of travel, our entry into Wick brings me quickly and unexpectedly back to urban reality. Despite being so very, very far away – more than 100 miles north east of Inverness, in fact – the very first thing I see as we pass the obligatory 'Welcome to Wick' sign is, for me, that most dreaded of sights, an out-of-town retail park featuring most of the usual suspects.
Interestingly, it is faced across the main road by what appears to be the largest and most densely-populated grave yard I have seen since I visited Glasgow's Necropolis. There's a witty comment in there somewhere...
There is a certain irony in the fact that I have arrived in Wick on a Sunday, and on a Sunday there are no buses to John O'Groats . However, instead of my journey being brought to a shuddering anti-climactic halt, I was carried to John O'Groats using a service operated by Caithness Rural Transport, a largely publicly-funded organisation which picks up where commercial bus services leave off and provide essential transport for people who would otherwise be trapped at home. Their taxi-like service relies on volunteer drivers to ensure that local people, especially those with limited mobility or who have a genuine transport need, have a means of getting to where they need to be.
It is a public transport service, though a rather different one to those offered by companies like Stagecoach and Arriva, and it is an appropriate way of me to complete my End-to-End journey. I have enjoyed hundreds of miles of rural bus journey on my travels and I have encountered missing buses, irregular timetables and sometimes no buses at all. Few places are as resolutely rural or as remote (gloriously so) as Caithness, and what Caithness Rural Transport demonstrates is the kind of innovative solutions that are being employed to tackle the problems of rural public transport – or, indeed, the lack of it.
I could have taken a taxi, of course. After all, it was the monopoly enjoyed by the hackney carriages in London in the 1820's, as well as the expense of using them and their resultant exclusivity, which prompted the invention of the Omnibus, which was in effect a multi-person hackney carriage in which each passenger helped share the cost of the journey depending on how far they were travelling. But the opportunity to experience an innovative new form of public transport was too much to resist, and Caithness Rural Transport it was.
I did all the usual things I expect other people do when they complete their End-to-End's – go and have their photo taken by the John O'Groats fingerpost, buy a couple of postcards, chat to the steady trickle of other End-to-Enders, stare reflectively out to sea – and I have treated myself to a good meal, a couple of bottles of beer from the Skye Brewery and a glass of one of my favourite malt whiskies (it was a Talisker, since you're asking). Tomorrow I have one more bus journey to make, to Thurso where I will catch my train home.
I now face the huge task of trying to make sense of my journey, of picking out the interesting and important bits and making a start on the long labour of writing it all down and creating a story out of it. Tomorrow's long train ride to Tyneside will give me time, for the first time, to sit and begin to reflect on this mad 29 day journey of mine which has transported me from one end of this amazing country of ours to the other.
But, hey. Reflection is for tomorrow. I'm told that this hotel has no less than 130 different whiskies in its bar.
And so far, I've only sampled one....