Monday, 21 August, 2017: Carrbridge to John o'Groats

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The Cairn Hotel, Carrbridge.

The final day of the mainland part of my trip, and I was very much looking forward to it.

I was up again at a more reasonable time and went down for breakfast at 08:30. Once more, Gareth was up and working, waiting on the guests. He enquired as to what I’d like and I said that it would be rude not to have a proper Scottish porridge, so that’s what I opted for, and it was certainly delicious. I subsequently discovered that Carrbridge hosts the annual World Porridge Making Championship, which, in a blow to Scottish pride was won in 2017 by two Swedes.

Having sufficiently filled up on the finest porridge oats, I bade my farewells and headed off at 09:30. The weather was perfect and, as I exited left out of the village onto the A938, I was in such a good mood to be riding the bike in such a wonderful location on such a nice day. The road snaked around for a while, before I finally re-joined the A9 once more, and this time, I was going to be staying on it until my first charge stop. I tried to keep my speed at around 50 mph, to preserve energy and this proved to be a perfectly adequate speed. As the A9 at this point is a dual carriageway, I wasn’t delaying anyone, so found the riding very relaxing.

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Dornoch Firth from the Dornoch Firth Bridge.

At Daviot, the road levelled off, turned slightly to the right and began the descent to Inverness, with the Moray Firth stretched out in front: a great view from that vantage point.

Having skirted Inverness and crossed the Beauly Firth over the Kessock Bridge, it was on to Duncanston, where once again, after the trees cleared from either side of the road, I was treated to the wonderful panorama across the Cromarty Firth.

Crossing the Cromarty Bridge, the A9 then heads north east, along the north bank of the Cromarty Firth initially, past Alness and along the rather flatter plains, giving the impression of a big sky. As the road turned north and skirted Tain, the road again offered up a spectacular view, this time across the Dornoch Firth, and passing the Glenmorangie distillery on the banks of the firth, I crossed onto the Dornoch Bridge, at which point the scenery was irresistible and I decided to stop.

I noticed a couple of bikers in front of me and got chatting with them. It transpired they were fellow Yorkshire folk, from Wakefield, and were undertaking the North Coast 500 route. I offered to take a photo of them then left them to their drinks while I took a couple of photos, recorded a little video, then continued on my journey into Sutherland.

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John Chivers' Zero DSR electric motorcycle charging outside the Sutherland Inn, Brora.

There was a very pleasant set of bends to ride and then a nice view along Loch Fleet at The Mound. Following on from there, I was onto the succession of towns and villages which flank the A9 as it hugs the eastern coast all the way up to John o’Groats, the first of which was Golspie.

Shortly thereafter, and just before passing Dunrobin castle, I encountered the rather unfortunately ironic sight of a car which had left the road and launched up a grassy bank, closely followed by a “Thank you for driving carefully” sign. Rounding the bend from there and back out of the trees it was a short run to my charging stop of the day.

I arrived at the Sutherland Inn, Brora at 11:34 with 5% of the battery remaining. I had been told when I contacted the inn that they weren’t officially open to serve until midday, but that I would be welcome to charge before then, and sure enough, they were true to their word. I met the owners, a friendly couple, originally from South Africa, and they let me plug the bike in through a window into a double socket in their restaurant, with the bike parked just off the street outside the front of the inn.

Initially, I sat in the dining room alone until they opened the bar, at which time I went through. I wasn’t there long before a local, Donnie, struck up conversation with me. We chatted about all sorts of things.

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John Chivers' Zero DSR electric motorcycle charging outside the Sutherland Inn, Brora.

Donnie, now retired, had worked as an electrician in nuclear power plants and was well travelled. He told me about his grown-up children, a couple of which had gone on to join the police, and his daughter, who sadly passed away. I made the faux-pas of trying to sympathise with the words, “you shouldn’t have to bury your children”, at which point he burst into tears. He apologised for being upset, as if an apology were necessary for being upset at such a tragedy, but I felt foolish and tried to console him as best I could.

Shortly afterwards, another local, Billy joined us. Billy joined the conversation and both of them insisted on buying me drinks and refused to let me get a round in turn. I was only on soft drinks, of course, but felt bound to get them both a drink. The more I insisted after three or four rounds, the more they forcefully declined, much to the barman’s amusement. I looked at him bemused and said the situation reminded me of the episode of Father Ted where Mrs Doyle and her friend end up being arrested after arguing over which one of them would pay for their drinks, each in turn insisting increasingly forcefully to the point of fighting that they would pay the bill.

After some time, Donnie made his excuses, but before departing handed me £20 for my fundraising and insisted I accepted it. I thanked him very much. Billy and I continued our conversation and he eventually relented and accepted a drink.

Shortly after 15:00, I noticed the bike had finished charging. Just before I set off, the owners apologised that I had been ‘taken hostage’ by two of the most colourful local characters, but I insisted sincerely that I had enjoyed their company. They’d kept me amused with good conversation for around three hours and I was grateful. I thanked them for allowing me to charge. They wished me luck for the onward journey and at shortly after 15:15 I set off for the final leg of the mainland part of my journey.

From Brora, I only had 63 miles to cover to John o’Groats, so I was already in a relaxed mood leaving there, knowing that I need have no concern about managing that distance. Since I’d stopped to charge, the sky had clouded over a little with some low cloud, but there were still patches of blue sky around.

Eleven miles from Brora, I passed through Helmsdale: another name familiar to many electric vehicle owners, as it boasts a rapid charger for cars.

After Helmsdale, I had the Berriedale Braes to face. This was the first time I had been on this section of the A9 and from what Donnie, Billy, and others in Brora had said, I had built it up to be a massively steep section of road. It actually is reasonably so in places, as far as UK roads go. A section of it is a 13% incline and there are some tight hairpins, but nothing out of the ordinary in comparison with roads in the Alps, which I have ridden fairly extensively.

In reality, the section of road has a reputation, because the hairpins are notoriously difficult for LGVs in particular to negotiate, especially when they come face to face. The road is a vital communication link between Caithness and the rest of the country and when there have been accidents in the past, there can be hold ups for several hours. At the time of writing, changes to the notorious hairpin on this section of road are planned.

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Caithness coast from Newport.

For my part, I had no problem and in fact the bike had an opportunity to show its true torque when I throttled out of a bend on a steep incline and it just responded effortlessly, as though it were merely a level section of road. It was a moment where I genuinely felt the true and effortless power of the bike’s electric motor in contrast with the engine on a petrol bike.

I continued up the A9 coastal road, pausing only briefly at Newport to take a photo out over the sea, past Dunbeath, for whose residents construction of the A9 flyover must have been a mixed blessing, and then at Latheron turned off the A9 on to the A99, continuing in the same direction of travel up the coastal road, arriving in the relative bustle of Wick after a further 16 miles.

Outside Wick, I turned right, spying the sign which indicated only 13 miles left to John o’Groats, then rode through the village of Keiss. As the sky cleared to a predominantly cloudless one, the road dipped and I saw stretched out before me the coast and Orkney in the distance, then passed the John o’Groats sign and John o’Groats Guest House.

Rounding a bend to the left and passing a few houses, I rolled off my speed as I passed the Seaview Hotel and began the light descent down to towards the Tourist Information Centre and souvenir shops near the John o’Groats Hotel and famous signpost.

As I approached the signpost, I could see that there were only a couple stood next to it and three people walking away from it. I waited somewhat impatiently as the three people moving away seemed to take an impossibly inordinate amount of time to move out of the way so that I could ride up next to it. I wasn’t sure what the protocol with regard to me riding the bike up there would be and half imagined that someone might take exception, but by that stage, I didn’t care. I was elated to have made it to this point.

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John Chivers and his Zero DSR electric motorcycle at John O'Groats.

After what seemed like several minutes, but was in fact only a few seconds, I approached the sign, and, while still sat on the bike, ceremoniously touched the signpost at exactly 17:02.

I had thereby become the first person to ride an electric motorbike from Land’s End to John o’Groats.

I asked a couple near the sign if they’d be kind enough to take a couple of photos and a man called Kamal obliged, so I returned the favour and got a photo of him and his partner together. Then, I filmed a short celebratory video and captured some of the surroundings.

Checking the bike’s stats, I could see I had 16% battery left with 15.7 miles estimated range remaining. I decided to allow myself a few minutes to appreciate the moment, then rode over to the nearby car park, parked up and went into one of the shops, intent on collecting a souvenir fridge magnet: an activity which has become somewhat of a tradition at home now whenever we go somewhere.

In the shop, I got chatting to the owner and explained what I’d done. He took great interest in this ‘first’ and asked for my details, saying he wanted to pass them on to a Caithness journalist he knew. He also advised me to sign an “End-to-Ender” book in the tourist information centre, which I duly did.

My next thought was not to go immediately onto my nearby accommodation for the night, but to explore a road back just before the Seaview Hotel, signposted to Duncansby Head, 2 miles away.

I should confess that at this point, I wasn’t aware of Duncansby Head or its location, but just from the layout, I could see that it was to the north east of John o’Groats, sounded like a headland, and wasn’t that far away. I had time and energy left, so I thought I’d take a look.

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View towards Orkney from near Duncansby Head Lighthouse.

I’m glad I did for a couple of reasons. The road there was a pleasant single track to ride and afforded very pleasant views out to sea towards Orkney. Following the road to the end, I came to Duncansby Head Lighthouse. I discovered that although John o’Groats is traditionally recognised as the furthest point from Land’s End on the UK mainland, it is in fact Duncansby Head which is the rightful claimant of this title. It would have been a pity to do the trip and then to find this out later, so I was glad I went there too.

After I’d taken a couple of photos there, I decided to make tracks to my accommodation for the night, just under five miles west of John o'Groats at Bencorragh House Bed & Breakfast in Upper Gills, arriving there at 18:11 with 14% remaining. I was greeted by Sandy Barton, with whom I’d spoken on the phone to book the accommodation. She struck me as quite a forthright, no-nonsense person, but friendly enough, and reminded me a little of my late aunt in this respect.

I find the key with people is to engage with them rather than make a rash, early judgement about them and become antagonistic. People have a view of those in hospitality that they should be scraping and crawling to customers. I prefer to treat them with the same respect I’d afford anyone else. Yes, we are ‘customers’, but we are receiving a service in kind, and, having experienced and been on the receiving end of unpleasant guests in hotel work in my early working life, I know the score.

Sandy advised me where I could plug the bike in and then showed me to my room. The house had a very familial and homely feel to it, and Sandy and her husband Ron have a passion for displaying dogs, with multiple awards displayed proudly on one of the walls.

They have a communal conservatory area sheltered on the inside of the U-shaped building, so away from the otherwise quite gusty winds I imagine they are subjected to on occasion. The conservatory was extremely cosy and warm and there were three cats roaming around. As a cat owner, I appreciated how friendly they were and it transpired that they were cats which the couple had rescued. They kept livestock too, running a working croft in addition to the Bed and Breakfast. Ron is in his 80s and is still keeping very busy. He told me his GP had advised him not to stop and he did appear to have the energy levels of someone twenty years his junior.

My room had no TV, so having done the usual transferral of video footage to hard drive, I returned to the communal area, which was also the only place WIFI was available, and chatted some more with a couple of other guests and Sandy and Ron while one of the cats made itself comfortable, curled up on my lap.

After a while, I excused myself and turned in, ready for a relatively early start the following morning.


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