Sandwood Bay and Durness

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Clachtoll to Sandwood Bay

More photos: https://flic.kr/s/aHskdLbZm3

Woke at 6am to the sound of slamming car doors and loud voices  – the Noisy Ones were up and about and letting us all know it. Good morning to you too.Groggy from lack of sleep (I need 8 hours, Chris 6.5 so he was a bit more lively than me) there was nothing for it but to get a brew on and greet the day. Which didn’t look too bad as I peeked out the flap and rolled up the outer door. Wind had dropped though it was still showery and overcast.

We don’t eat much for breakfast, so it was a banana for me and we shared a tin of grapefruit. Washed down with lashings of tea.

Packed up the gear and got ready to set off around 8am and head further north.We would decide en route whether we wanted to commit to the 8 mile return trek to Sandwood Bay. Or do something far less strenuous.

What do inconsiderate numpties look like? I had a good look as our noisy neighbours were packing up too. They were either a mother and young adult daughter OR an older woman and younger girlfriend/friend. Hard to say. Some crying and hugging going on and stroppy stomping around by the twenty-something girl, all dreadlocks and Goth clothes. Felt a twinge of guilt that there might be a difficult emotional/behavioural issue involved and was glad I’d just put up and shut up the night before.

Said goodbye to Jim and decided to pop into Lochinver for diesel and pick up a few more supplies in the shop. Plus, Chris loves visiting local shops to peruse the wine and other goodies – crisps and pickles, olives etc.

I love Lochinver. Scene of many a happy family holiday a few decades ago when the boys were wee. Great home-made pie shop (the Lochinver Bistro – queued out when we arrived) and bathed in that beautiful far north light.

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Lochinver

Lochinver

The Visitor Centre is an excellent one and we decided to ask if there might be any accommodation available for a couple of nights, just as a stand by. But the whole area was full to bursting. Not a room to be had. That’s the May Bank Holiday weekend for you.

It’s a wonderful drive up over the hill road, past Quinag and with a smattering of the big stuff unveiling themselves  in the swirling mist – Ben More Assynt, Conival, Arkle, Foinaven. The last two we hadn’t climbed yet and our hope was to fit one of them in this trip.

Assynt is the area on which – it is claimed – Tolkein based  ‘Middle Earth’ and it certainly fits the bill.Primeval, brooding, stunningly beautiful: a prehistoric landscape.Yet lush too, green and rocky and always nearby – the ocean.

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Arkle from near Loch Laxford

We swept past tiny Kylesku and then out along lonely Loch Laxford with the pyramid of Ben Stack overlooking the grand scene.

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Above Kylesku

Then a turn onto the winding, single track to Oldshoremore and the right fork to the Sandwood Bay car park. Even on a dullish , damp day the vistas were just mesmerising. It is absolutely beautiful country in its own right, even when it’s highest hills are wreathed in low cloud.

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The road to Oldshoremore

The start of the walk

The car park was quite busy; you go for miles without seeing a soul or another car in Assynt and then suddenly…there everybody is. Actually ‘everybody’ was about 10 cars, hardly a crowd but it’s all relative in this very quiet, peaceful area.

Decision time – to do or not to do The Walk?

I love great beaches. Not for sunbathing as such, much as I don’t mind a bit of that in more tropical climes. No, just lonely unspoiled beaches where it feels as if you can wander forever with only the sound of the surf and the seabirds crying. Much as I love the mountains, the ocean always does it for me.The Outer Hebrides, South Africa , the Caribbean, California.So many memories of stunning sands and emerald seas. So – Sandwood Bay had some stiff competition if it was going to make my Great Beaches list.Especially with all the hype of it being the ‘UK’s Best Beach.’ Makes you sort of want NOT to agree with the general consensus.Or maybe that’s just me.The 4 mile + walk in also means your eye is going to be particularly critical in deciding whether it’s worth the effort. And, only a few miles away, is truly gorgeous Oldshoremore beach, a minute’s stroll from a car park.

Feeling like a couple of lazy gits, we hummed and hawed about whether to take a full half day out of our precious short stay in this most brilliant of areas to see , basically, sand. Lots of it. Actually, it was me who thought we were just being utterly slothful; Chris is very laid back about these things. If he saw Sandwood fine, if not..so what? Admirable in many ways but not really helpful when it comes to Making A Decision.

I had walked to Sandwood 27 years before , in the rain and feeling guilty (something I have a Gold medal for) at the thought of my new baby boy being looked after for a few stolen hours. It hadn’t made for the best experience.Soaked, cold and wishing we’d done something else, we turned tail within minutes of arriving, almost meeting ourselves coming back.

Ah well, even if it didn’t live up to the hype , we would treat it as a Good Walk! Get some air about the gills! Plenty of that to be had on such a blustery day.Our plan to climb Arkle had already been ruled out as the summits were wreathed in cloud and racked by gales, according to the Mountain Forecast.

So at 10 am , we set off from an already busy Blairmore car park with scudding cloud, heavy showers and occasional sunshine likely to be the order of the day. I’d read that the moorland walk was ‘boring’ but I like moorland and in late May, it’s filled with lark song and fragrant with wildflowers. In fact, even looking behind us at the start of the track, the view of Scourie Bay, the ocean and headland upon headland was simply beautiful.

Scourie Bay
Scourie Bay from the car park

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The John Muir Trust own Sandwood and have created the most wonderfully dry sandy path to walk on. If only all Scottish paths were so perfect! It was a pleasure to walk, even after such a rainy spell. A far cry from the eroded quagmire of 3 decades ago too.

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We passed 4 brilliant blue lochans, some with fine pink sands. To our right, Arkle emerged eerily out of the rising mist, across the layers of moorland and rock.Didn’t fancy its summit today and I was glad we’d left it well alone. In contrast, this was quite sheltered, flat, made for good going and I was enjoying myself thoroughly.This was boring? Even the constant changing of the light and the sky was breathtaking.

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Almost 90 minutes later , we crested the high point of the walk and caught sight of the bay, just as a hail shower had us donning the waterproofs pronto. My eyes were fixed on the scene ahead as I zipped up my jacket – I’d forgotten how enormous the beach is. It was looking good – VERY good.

First view from the high point
First view from the high point

The dark grey light had turned the dunes an ethereal pale green, a stunning contrast to the deep orange/pink sand, which gets its striking colour from the Red Torridonian Sandstone typical of the area.Yet in minutes, the sun was out and the sky and ocean were cerulean blue.The beach has a huge dune system and it took another 10 mins or so to finally reach the sands.

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The final half mile

We both looked at each other, drinking in the whole wonderful sight …..this was a wow! The sheer scale of it and the wild landscape behind and around it was breathtaking.

The shower passes
The shower passes
The sand itself was beautiful
The sand itself was beautiful

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There was an exposed rocky islet surrounded by swirling pale turquoise sea which the low tide still allowed us to clamber onto for an elevated look .

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It made a fine vantage point for admiring the endless orange-pink sands, emerald shallows and the impressive cliffs – layer upon layer of them , finishing at Cape Wrath itself, the most north westerly point of the UK mainland.

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At the other end of the beach was the oft photographed sea stack Am Buachaille ( pron. am boo – a – cal -yi ) pointing needle-like out of the ocean. Its translation from the Gaelic is The Shepherd. Was it because ships could clearly identify it, using it to help them navigate towards safer waters, once the Cape had been turned? Trying to understand the meaning of these names really helps in understanding the landscape and its history.

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In all, we spent an hour and a half on the beach, including an outdoor lunch of chicken drumsticks and coleslaw as we tucked into the dunes out of the snell wind.

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Picnic spot views don’t get much better than this

The Water Horse legend

Although the car park had been busy we only saw about 6 people in total at Sandwood. It’s so big that people just seem to disappear. Mind you, that’s not surprising given the legends attached to it. Mermaids, the ghost of a sailor, a haunted ruin, the remains of a Viking longship (which we didn’t find) all add to its mystery and allure.Two hikers reported sleeping in the ruin one night and woke to find it shaking and the sounds of a wild horse stamping above them.There is, in Gaelic legend, an Each Uisge or Water Horse which lures humans to their deaths and devours them. It is a terrifying portent of doom.

I had my own experience with this many years ago,coming off Ben Stack on my own. As I approached a lochan, I could have sworn that – for the briefest moment –  a black horse galloped past me in the middle distance.Then it simply disappeared.I was almost embarrassed to acknowledge it – had I simply imagined it? I didn’t say anything to anyone about it until later, when I called Chris and he told me that his Dad had been taken into hospital on Skye that day. (He died shortly afterwards)

Does immersion in wild landscape trigger spiritual connections that , given our lives today, we have lost contact with? I do believe that. W H Murray one of our finest writers on landscape and a Himalayan pioneer has written of some powerful spiritual experiences linked to being in wild and beautiful areas, when every sense is heightened and we are attuned to life differently, albeit for a brief time.

Towards Cape Wrath
Towards Cape Wrath

We chatted on the way back about whether an overnight camp at Sandwood – sometime when the weather promised fair – would be worth the considerable effort. We ARE getting lazier as we age (Chris will be 60 next year) and don’t exactly do lightweight camping anymore – we like our comforts. Plenty food, wine, chocolate and crisps, milk for tea, it all adds to the weight. But a flattish four mile walk in might work if we took our time. As ever, our exhilaration at how the day had panned out went to our heads and before we knew it we were considering a return walk to Cape Wrath from the beach camp! Only an 8 hour undertaking with no track (we took the bus to it next day, much more sensible).

What I would fancy, more realistically,  is having far more time to explore the magnificent headlands and to see the beach at sunrise and sunset.That would be the thing.

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Lochan beach with peaty burn running into it.

Was it worth it?

My feet were feeling it a bit by the time we got to the car, 8 miles or 13km later.Plus whatever we walked on the beach itself. But to reach this most famous of Scottish beaches and find that for once, the hype was pretty spot on, had my heart singing. The best beach in the UK? Certainly one of the finest wild beaches anywhere. In my Top 10 I would say.

It’s not just the beach, it’s the whole wild setting which makes it so unforgettable. And to me, life affirming. A photographer’s paradise with its ever changing light and colours.

There are only so many longish walks I’d ever do again and this is one of them. A good one to do in winter too, when the colours and light must be even more incredible. A memorable 4.5 hours devoted to this wonderful place.Most definitely time well spent.

It was after 2.30pm by the time we got back to the car, now a pleasant if cool afternoon.Time to head further north and have a look at the Durness area with its beautiful beaches and….Cocoa Mountain, one of the best chocolatiers in Europe.

It’s a gorgeous drive up to Durness, through wild empty country.Beautiful.

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Ben Stack

Cranstackie reared out of the mist as we drove along the shore of the beautiful Kyle of Durness, the tide on the ebb.

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Kyle of Durness
Kyle of Durness

Durness is nothing special as such, just a small village but the location is superb. Cliffs, deserted beaches, headlands, mountains and moorland.You’re a long way from anywhere up here…next stop Iceland and the Arctic.

Balnakiel is a stunner of a beach too but we just didn’t have time for it today.

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Cocoa Mountain

Time to indulge the caffeine and chocoholic cravings so we headed straight for Cocoa Mountain just as the rain began to fall in sheets. In fact, it looked like the whole of Durness was in the cafe, hunkering down out of the weather.

Ordered their special of 4 homemade chocs and a decaf latte ( I know, where’s the caffeine hit in that? Normal coffee makes my head spin so I avoid it.There is a tiny amount of caffeine in decaff to offer enough of a fix for me.) Chris had a proper latte.The flavours of the chocolates on offer are really unusual…..ginger and blueberry , raspberry and cranberry, pecan and they actual taste of their ingredients. I always make a beeline for chocolatiers in Paris but I’ve never tasted the strong flavours they seem to get in these morsels of scrumptiousness.

Cocoa Mountain
Cocoa Mountain in Durness

Much as it was very pleasant sitting inside the cosy cafe with its delicious chocolate and coffee aroma, just relaxing and with a lovely sense of achievement, a camping spot had to be found and that can take a while.

So up and out and back to driving along the coast, with tantalising glimpses of little pink beaches dotted between cliffy headlands. The Durness campsite itself looked very nice, set high above the shore on a cliff top but  – it wasn’t for us.The wilds beckoned.

Wild campsite found – a cracker

After five minutes or so,  the road swept round a bend and a gorgeous sweep of sand appeared below us backed by grassy outcrops. We pulled sharply into a parking lay-by and scuttled out of the car to get a better look. Steep wooden steps led down to a narrow track above the pristine sands and we knew, then, that this had to be the place.There were little areas of grass, quite flat and, even better, they were all tucked away out of sight of the road high above us. It was perfect – a dream pitch close to fresh running water from a burn.Views out to uninhabited islets and a turquoise ocean. Truly magical.

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Traigh Allt Chailgeag

Subsequent research into the Gaelic name of the beach which we saw on our OS map revealed that this ‘Beach of the River of Loss’ (Traigh is Gaelic for beach, Allt  is river or burn and Chailgeag is loss or bereavement) had a sad history. It is named after an elderly woman who , in the 19th century,  drowned in the river while it was in spate and her body was washed into the sea. She and her family farmed here and the remains of their farm are still visible on the hillside above the road.Hard, hard lives. Many were forcibly removed off good land during the notorious Clearances, a period not forgotten in the minds of many Scots.

The sun was now splitting the sky, though the wind was bitter but as long as it was dry, it was great for getting ourselves set up. We made a few journeys back and forward to the car to bring the gear and food down as we planned two nights here – a relief in itself to have a wee ‘home’ to come back to.

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The tent

We were fairly sheltered from the westerly wind too and decided to fire up the disposable BBQ and grill the steak we’d picked up in Durness’s Spar store.A large boulder did as an extra wind break and we even brought the camping chairs down.This was the life!

Oh, that first cup of sparkling wine as we settled down to tend the food and munch on some pre-dinner ‘canapés’ : crisps and cornichons and some chilli olives.Bliss. And despite our minds being filled with Sandwood’s glories, this much smaller beach was a fair old match in the beauty stakes. It was gorgeous.

These BBQs struggle in such cold air but finally, the steaks were ready. And they were delicious. We had some fresh buttered rolls too then finished with lots of fruit…oranges and strawberries …and for me at least, a final few chocolate mint thins.

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It was a cold but beautiful evening now so we decided to explore the far ends of the beach.At low tide,  the colour , light and reflections were simply incredible. It felt a privilege to be here to be honest, to discover this completely unspoiled almost secret place. It certainly ranks as one of our top pitches anywhere, the sort of place which I know will draw us back again.

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By late evening, the light was turning more golden and we watched the scudding clouds drop heavy showers out at sea.

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It soon got too cold to keep the tent flap open and we settled down for the night about 10pm, tiredness hitting us too.You are in the fresh air so much when camping, that that alone does take it out of you and especially so when it is cold.The super -silver lining of course was that the cold (and the wind) meant no midges.

Tomorrow – The Oldshoremore Beaches

A stroll on Oldshoremore’s beaches and a leisurely seafood lunch at the cafe overlooking the jetty where the tiny boat leaves for Handa island.

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