BEN Klibreck disappears from the rear-view mirror and sinks below the horizon. But the great, isolated pyramid of rock, upon which I stood only a few hours earlier and gazed out upon unknown mountains, looms tall and fresh in the land of memory. The day is going well. I put my foot down and head north to where the road runs out.
The swollen lip has deflated and now feels like a burst front tyre on a Reliant Robin. I try singing to myself but the lip veers off in a different direction as I drive up the A836 – which must be one of the few single-track A-roads in the country – to a place called Tongue. I’m mildly amused by the notion that a man with a massively swollen though now deflating lower lip should end up in a place called Tongue.
Tongue is situated on the far northern coast of Scotland, though it could be in another world. If you stand on the beach and look out to sea, there is very little between you and the polar bears, give or take a few lonesome rocks where sheep and Celtic Church anchorites dwell.
I am not too impressed by Tongue. Mind you, the weather might have something to do with it: overcast sky, blustery wind, grey seas rolling in from the retreating Arctic ice. Even the woman in the general store is as cold as the rocks on the shore, watching me suspiciously as I rummage about in the bread baskets.
I pay for two bags of floury rolls and ask directions to the nearest campsite. She answers in a language I am not familiar with. Then on my way out I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the window. This wildman gapes back – unkempt hair, scraggy beard, fat lip, grimy face, sweaty shirt, trousers that have absorbed enough Highland nutrients to grow oats. It’s no wonder the poor woman is a bit reticent. Wouldn’t be surprised if she called the poliss.
The campsite is in Talmine, a crofting community on the far side of the bay, accessed by a causeway along which the main road careers importantly. In Talmine, traditional crofters’ cottages mingle with rather more adventurous structures built from a variety of materials. The place has an anarchistic feel about it – like, if you wanted to thumb your nose at authority and build a house out of industrial pallets and roof it with the upturned hull of a Grimsby trawler, then this is the place to do it.
I get the impression that people in Talmine live life at an easier pace and don’t worry too much when the vehicle licence renewal form drops on the doormat. Even the cows have a nonchalant air about them; completely blasé in fact. They don’t appear to mind if you have to wait five minutes to drive around them. They just look at you indifferently while they relieve themselves on the tarmac.
This is my kind of place: crofters; anarchists; retired couples; fugitives; the socially insane; the socially successful; a complete suspension of normal values; an apparent non-recognition of building regulations; a very rare though very British defiance; roaring seas; tangy salt air; screaming gulls; dispassionate cows; and a campsite.
Most importantly of all, it’s within striking distance of Ben Hope, my 150th Munro – the most northerly Munro in the entire world. And there it looms on the immediate horizon like Turner’s Fighting Temeraire being towed up the Thames – as stately a mountain as anyone could wish for in a country as wild and as desolate as the ocean.
As I drive through the campsite gate, a small Scottish chap darts from a camper van and directs me to the tent area, which is a bit of rough land with a standpipe and several unused caravans decomposing sadly in long grass. He asks me for £6. I give him a fiver plus a 50p piece and three 20p pieces – but I get no change. Perhaps there’s an administration fee.
He tells me he has been coming to this campsite since the 1950s. This impresses me, and while I attempt to hammer tent pegs into unyielding ground with a large cobble, I muse on what age he must have been when first he came, and how he certainly wasn’t driving a camper van.
I scout around my new home. The toilet block is basic. No facility for washing pots and pans – one has to use the toilet washbasins. I don’t like this arrangement at all. Nothing worse than a piece of someone else’s curly pasta lodged in the plug hole while you’re cleaning your teeth. And there’s a wind blasting in from Fair Isle or German Bight or wherever. Fairly rattles round the building. There’s also a sign that says customers must supply their own toilet paper. Its saving grace, though, is that the shower is piping hot, so I wash off the dust, sweat and grime I accumulated on Ben Klibreck, then return all pink to my tent and heat up some home-made Asturian fabada on the petrol stove.
Ah yes, the Asturian fabada. Strong food for mountain people. I’d like to say I acquired the recipe from an olive-skinned shepherd in the heights of the Picos de Europa as we sat round a campfire watching a red sun sink in the Bay of Biscay – but it wouldn’t strictly be true. Not strictly. I stumbled upon this marvellous dish (recipe here) of haricot beans, pork and chorizo in a rural restaurant near Llanes, just north of the Picos, and it has been a favourite ever since. Its most important ingredient is morcilla asturiana, an intensely smoky black pudding. And as I slice one of the slippery little blighters into my billy can I am almost transported to northern Spain. Almost. It’s a bit cooler here in the far north of Scotland. And the romantic noise I momentarily take for castanets is the little camper van man scraping his frying pan.
I’ve had a long, hard day and the fabada recharges body and soul. The carbohydrates in the haricots will serve me well on Ben Hope tomorrow.
As I write these words it’s 7.58pm. I’m full of beans, I have half a Krakow kielbasa from the Polish deli in Darlington’s Stonebridge to work away at, some Marston’s Pedigree and a bottle of Bell’s whisky. No one can accuse me of not being an internationalist.
As I slice my kielbasa, the little dapper Scotsman from the camper van is directing a young chap to the camping area. I hear him tell the chap that he has been coming to this campsite since the 1940s. Whoa . . . . What happened to the 1950s? At this rate, by 10pm he’ll have pushed himself back to the 1930s.
Bet the 10p change I never got would have been worth something in those days.