THE roar of waves pounding ancient cliffs echoes from somewhere far below. Before me, the blue Atlantic stretches to distant rocks where only seabirds venture, lands where glaciers grind to the sea, and ice floes where polar bears wander. This is it. I cannot walk further. I have reached the end of the Cape Wrath Trail, the end of Britain. One more step and I would fall, like Reepicheep, off the edge of the world.
There is a sense of melancholy in completing a 200-mile walk. There is, for now, little sense of achievement. That will come later in familiar surroundings, amid the sights, sounds and smells of everyday life.
I gaze out across the ocean from the Cape Wrath lighthouse and emotions ebb and flow like the currents below. The important thing, I tell myself, is to spend some time in contemplation, allow a sense of purpose and fulfilment to become established here in this great wide space where the land ends and the Atlantic begins. I know this from experience. I walked the Cleveland Way a few years ago – Helmsley to Osmotherley, to Saltburn, to Whitby, to Scarborough and beyond. After a week on the trail I wandered into Filey and saw a train standing in the station, ready to pull out. So I jumped aboard.
I was hurled back into the pit of normality. Seven days of solitary walking over purple moors and along dramatic clifftops were wiped out in an instant and replaced by a world of housing estates, industrial units and mobile phones.
What I should have done was sit on the seafront for a couple of hours with the sun on my face, lying back on my pack while the seagulls mewed and waves rolled up the shore. Then gone for a pot of tea and fish and chips in a seaside cafe.
So I sit in the grass with my back against the lighthouse compound wall, and watch the sea – the ancient whale-road – wash around the corner of Scotland, streaming like a broad blue river towards the Orkneys and Scandinavia. This is the way the Vikings came; along the top of Scotland to Cape Wrath, their turning point, then down the west coast to the Hebrides and Ireland. What was that poem, that snatch of verse from King Harald’s Saga?
Norwegian arms are driving
This iron-studded dragon
Down the storm-tossed river
Like an eagle with wings flapping
And this place has not changed since then. The waves still crash against the rocks, the seabirds still shriek and dive. Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas still battle it out on obscure TV channels the world over.
I left Strathchailleach bothy early this morning in warm sunshine and headed north along the clifftops. There were two or three deep valleys to negotiate during the seven-mile trudge to the cape, but it was quite easy going and the scenery was uplifting. And now the 200 miles from Fort William seem like a blur, a series of images that flicker by and merge into each other.
I get the stove out and brew up in a waiting room in the lighthouse complex, alone in this big empty room that’s painted red and amplifies every sound. Then after a while a mini-bus rattles along the track from Kyle of Durness and pulls up outside. This is my lift back to normality. It’s all over. No more bothy nights, no more fiery dawns, no more wet socks, no more pans of tea boiled in the lea of a wayside boulder . . . Until the next time, of course.