Making Tracks For Lonely Altnabreac
My train ticket to Altnabreac was my passport to a morning of freedom. It cost just £4.30, and it would have been even cheaper with a railcard - a small price to pay for the chance to cycle back to Wick from that lonely outpost on the fringes of the Flow Country.
It was the first day of the school holidays and so the backpackers were heavily outnumbered by family groups on ScotRail's 6.29 service. I squeezed myself (and rucksack) into one of the cramped double seats and watched the early-morning world go by. After a week of turbulent weather, tranquillity had descended on the county; the surface of Loch Watten was like tinted glass, with a lone buzzard swooping above.
We reached Altnabreac (via Thurso) at 7.23, right on schedule, and off I got. As the train clattered away down the track, I wheeled the bike along the rough grass that serves as a platform and felt an uplifting sense of being entirely on my own.
Some would say the landscape is bleak or even oppressive around here, with regulation-size clumps of conifers, heathery moorland, moody-looking lochs and a few isolated hills on the horizon. The dark heart of the Far North may not boast many glossy-calendar viewpoints, but what it does offer is solitude - and that can be every bit as invigorating as scenic splendour.
I soon found that the dirt-track forestry routes had been softened into a gravelly mush by the recent heavy downpours. With watery potholes and jagged stones to avoid, it made for slow going - but I was in no hurry. Altnabreac's most prominent landmark - indeed its only landmark - is Lochdhu Lodge, that distinctive Victorian edifice that has a vaguely sinister look about it when seen from the railway line. Close up, though, there were signs of domesticity - all the internal lights were on in the turret section - and the lodge seemed to have lost much of its Transylvanian mystique.
A couple of miles on and another old shooting lodge, Dalnawillan, loomed into view. Unlike Altnabreac, though, this relic of the glory days of hunting and fishing appears to have fallen into disrepair. Its decline is perhaps summed up by a forlorn set of antlers protruding from one of the front window frames; it must have been nailed there with proprietorial pride when the lodge was in its prime, but now the antlers, like the rest of Dalnawillan, are decaying badly.
There had been a few spots of rain earlier but the low cloud was gradually clearing and by 8am I had an uninterrupted view of the Causewaymire wind turbines, seemingly immobile on the horizon. The great expanse of Loch More sparkled in the sunlight as I glanced across to the small cottage on the opposite shore and thought of Rudolf Hess and the doppelgaenger theory. (Hitler's deputy may or may not have been taken to Loch More Cottage, amid much intrigue, before joining the Duke of Kent's ill-fated flying-boat mission in August 1942... but that's another story.)
I stopped to take some pictures at an alluring little bog-pool and then, at the northern edge of Loch More, the forestry track finally gave way to a proper road. It may only have been a humble offshoot of the single-track B870 but it felt like a newly-laid autobahn compared to the sandy, stony trails I had been pedalling along since setting out from Altnabreac.
Just beyond Strathmore Lodge I noticed two anglers down to my right on the River Thurso - the first people I had clapped eyes on since saying cheerio to the ticket-collector an hour and 10 minutes before. No sooner had I adjusted to being back in the realm of humans than I encountered some rush-hour traffic: a car at the Dirlot turn-off, followed a minute or so later by a Land Rover.
At Dale Moss I found that I had been wrong in my earlier assessment of the wind farm; it wasn't immobile at all. The blades on six of the 21 turbines were moving, albeit slowly.
Although fortified by a couple of digestive biscuits and a bottle of water, I was puffing and panting a bit after a couple of longish climbs either side of Achanarras. By Watten the gentle south-east breeze had developed into a half-hearted headwind, but the blue skies and warm sunshine gave ample compensation.
I trundled into Wick at 10.15 - eight minutes under the three-hour mark. I hadn't calculated the distance from Altnabreac but, whatever it was, this was not exactly an Olympic qualifying time. I was just happy to have rolled along at my own pace on a day when summer seemed finally to have arrived.
A busy day lay ahead, but it was good to know that for the first hour or so I'd had most of Caithness all to myself. That's what it had felt like, at any rate. Altnabreac tends to give you that impression. If you are interested in cycling this route (or any other one involving a train journey), bear in mind that ScotRail services have strictly limited bike spaces which should be booked in advance.