302. Berriedale to Helmsdale

May 2017

7 months after my last walk on the coast of Scotland I had made it back to Scotland and this was my first day of a 5 day trip back to Scotland. I had booked a return flight from London Luton to Inverness and 5 days car hire, so this morning I made an early start to drive to Luton Airport in order to take the 9:35am flight to Inverness. This arrived on time and this time I had directly to the Europcar car hire desk, which had moved to the other end of the terminal since my previous visit. The return flights and 5 days car hire cost me £130.74 which I did not think was bad.

This time I didn’t have long to wait and although I had booked the cheapest car (group A) I was actually upgraded to a slightly larger car, this time a red Vauxhall Astra. As usual I decline all the optional extras as they add so much to the cost and I was soon on my way driving north up the A9.

P1010272

When planning this walk I had read an account by Rosemary and Colin of their walk along this part of the coast. One of the problems they had was parking in Berriedale (where they parked they got harangued by a resident for doing so). I could see where this was and there did not appear to be an signs saying you couldn’t park. There was a much larger place that looked possible to park right by it, but this did have a (small) “Private car park” sign. That was really the only possible place other than lay-bys up on the A9 a fair bit further north or south. So I decided to avoid any hassle it would be simplest if I could time it right, to park in Helmsdale (where there was a car park) and take the bus to Berriedale, then walk back.

So I drove to Helmsdale and made fairly good time. I had enough time that I had about a 20 minute wait for a bus to Berriedale, which gave me time for a quick look around Helmsdale.

It is a small place and sadly much of it seemed to be closed for good, such as the Bridge Hotel, empty and with a “For Sale” sign outside. Given the difficulties of finding reasonably priced accommodation in this area and that it books out months in advance this did surprise me. Happily I believe it has since been bought and re-opened, which is good to see.

Helmsdale

Helmsdale

Helmsdale

A9 bridge, Helmsdale

The River Helmsdale, Helmsdale

Helmsdale

Given these were not that frequent (and even less frequent now) I was glad I could do it this way to avoid any parking hassles or a potentially long wait for the bus at the end of the walk. The bus was a coach as the route ran from Inverness to Thurso. It did not take long to get to Berriedale, which is in a steep valley. This means the road drops very steeply down into the valley, with a hairpin bend on either side and rapidly back out of the valley again so there is only one bus stop in Berriedale. (I gather improvements are taking place to this road at the moment however, so that might not be the case any longer). So when the bus began to descend I walked to the front and asked to get off and got off at the stop by the war memorial on the A9.

Berriedale is more a hamlet than a village, since it consists of probably only about 10 houses! The river, Berriedale Water flows out to the sea here. The next problem I had is that for just over half of this walk there was no obvious path I could find along the coast, and I did not fancy walking on the A9 all the way if I could help it.

Heading down to the bridge I stopped to take in the view of the Berriedale water.

Berriedale

Today the water was calm and shallow but I can imagine after heavy rain there would be rather more water flowing under here.

Berriedale

It was rather a pretty valley with an old bridge alongside the more modern one on the A9.

Berriedale

Berriedale

Pretty though it was I’d not like the constantly thundering traffic of the A9 running through.

On the south side of the A9 bridge I found Mill Road, a dead-end road heading to the shore. It was marked as a private road but that doesn’t prevent walking on it under the Scottish right to roam.

Berriedale

At the bottom a somewhat precarious suspension bridge provided another crossing of the river.

Berriedale

I think it may provide the only access to a couple of houses.

I didn’t need to cross the bridge as I was already south of the river. At the bottom of the road there was a small dock. I suspect once some sort of industry here but now it didn’t look to be much used anymore.

Berriedale

Berriedale

I found a path heading up the grass bank behind it, which was good. It looked like a proper path, but as I climbed it, it became less obvious. It was a long climb up, but I was rewarded with fine views back north over this small settlement and the gorse-covered hills around it, it was quite pretty.

Berriedale

Berriedale

Berriedale

Curiously at the top of this there was a kissing gate into a field but no sign of a path after that, but beside this was some sort of stone tower. It looked a bit like a chimney of some sort but how or why it had been built was a mystery. The map shows “Berriedale Castle (remains of)” around here, so perhaps that is what it was (look near the bottom left of the right bit of gorse on the cliff tops in the picture below).

The coast south of Berriedale

At the end of the field I climbed over the wire fence (barbed wire topped, naturally, that seems to be compulsory in Scotland!). Beyond that was rougher ground, it was not really a field more sort of long grass, heather and gorse.

My sort of path had sort of disappeared so I walked along the top of the high cliffs over the rough grass. 

The cliffs were already quite impressive and there was also a lot of bird life around.

The coast south of Berriedale

The coast south of Berriedale

On the map a track was marked (I suspect it was once the route of the A9 and improvements had made it straighter and further inland), so that was a possible alternative, but my sort of path had reappeared albeit a bit precarious right close to the cliff edge and often with a bit of a camber to it as well.

The coast south of Berriedale

All was going quite well until I came to an almost sheer cliff face ahead.

The coast south of Berriedale

To be fair, I had seen it coming but hoped I might find a path when I got there. Well I didn’t really so I had to turn inland a bit to climb up and around this and it was very steep over the long grass so I huffed and puffed my way up getting very hot doing so.

Again I stuck close to the edge, at time perhaps a little too close. Ahead I could soon see the cliffs would get lower, which was a relief, but I had another higher bit to get around first.

The coast south of Berriedale

Climbing further I was now at the high point. The only way was down!

The coast near Badbea

The height gained also meant it was a good vantage point to work out a route ahead. The land ahead was largely undeveloped, almost moorland really and though there wasn’t an obvious track as such I could see a dry stone wall ahead running almost as far as I could see so I figured keeping close to that might be an idea.

On the landward side of this I found a sort of path again and at least here I was protected to some degree from any steep drops to my left by the wall. 

The coast near Badbea

The coast near Badbea

I made good progress and soon reached a place marked as Badbea. This is a sad place. A former village, the residents were forced out by the awful Highland clearances, the buildings abandoned and left to fall into ruins. 

Some efforts seems to have been made however to preserve what is left and give information about the place. A path led from a small car park on the A9 to the site of the old village and information panels had been put up about the village. This was interesting but it was also useful as it meant I had access back to the A9 should I need it – always useful to know whatever lay ahead, I won’t have to turn all the way back!

Here, briefly, there was a good path along the coast but that is because it went between the buildings so was part of the “trail” to explore the former village. When this ended I was back to a mixture of gorse, heather and rough tufty grass.

I was making quite slow progress but soon there was a wire fence along the coast (I had at this point stuck closer to the coast than the dry-stone wall I had spotted earlier) and a bit of a path in front of that. I was not sure if this had been created by people or animals walking beside the fence to try and get over it, but either way it made for easier walking.

The coast near Badbea

Of course this soon turned a corner, so I had to climb it and then walk beside the dry stone wall again.

The coast near Badbea

I had made better progress along this bit, but I knew from the map there was a valley ahead. I couldn’t see it until I was quite close to it and – oh dear.

The coast south of Berriedale

Ousdale Burn valley

That is a long way down and back up. It looks very steep. I thought I could see a bridge however but then realised it was a fence – that continued over the river (why?!).

The river as it headed inland turned to the right so to get over it I’d either have to try and cross or head inland to the A9, almost back to the car park at the view point for Badbea. If I did that I’d have to walk on the A9 for some distance after that too.

I decided instead that it was worth heading down into the valley to see if I could cross the river there. This is the Ousdale Burn and it looked wider than I expected.

I made it down the steep valley by sort of zig-zagging and grabbing bits of grass to stop me slipping down the steep slope.

At the bottom the river was narrower than it looked from the top. In fact, getting across it was far easier than it had looked at the top. I could simply step over on some rocks.

Ousdale Burn valley

However once over the problem was getting up the other side. On the other side, the bank was far steeper and it had been steep enough getting down. I started to make my way up but it was hard work and it seemed to get steeper. I reached a point where the earth had eroded, a sort of landslip almost. I couldn’t go up that but beside it the ground was wet and slippery and almost gave way as I tried to put weight onto it. Grabbing at some grass and bushes I managed to make it up past this. After that it was easier, it was a little less steep and overgrown and I could zig-zag a bit to reduce the steepness.

Eventually I made it back to the top, but it had been a hard climb. Here is the view (slightly blurry) back down the way I came up. I can’t really recommend this route!

The coast north of Helmsdale

Eventually the land levelled out and I was back on what felt like open moorland again, over the heather which was much easier going. I even found a sort of path again which was encouraging.

The coast north of Helmsdale

The coast north of Helmsdale

Below me the coast was beautiful too. High cliffs, with the gorse going down much of the cliff face, providing yellow colour with a pebble beach at the bottom. In fact, I was beginning to wonder about that beach. It looked like it might continue all the way to Helmsdale, and that might be easier – if I could get down to it!

The coast north of Helmsdale

I had to head inland around another smaller valley and then continue on the sort of path along the coast to the next valley, passing some sort of old World War II bunker on the way, now derelict.

Old World War II bunker between Helmsdale and Berriedale

At the next, lower valley, I was indeed able to make it down onto the beach without too much difficulty.

The coast north of Helmsdale

The beach wasn’t great, mostly pebbles and shingle so fairly hard going but I felt still easier than the tufty grass and heather at the cliff tops.

As the tide was out I could continue on the beach and soon as I began to near Helmsdale there was a grassy area behind (as sea levels have dropped in northern Scotland this is probably an area that was once beach and has grassed over). At the back of this there was now a good grassy path and I could follow this passing a remote white house at the base of the cliffs and come round the corner to Helmsdale harbour.

The coast north of Helmsdale

It was a relief when I reached the house because again I knew for sure I’d be able to get back to Helmsdale along the shore after that.

The coast north of Helmsdale

Helmsdale harbour

Soon I was back at the car after what had turned out to be quite a demanding walk, but with some nice and remote scenery to enjoy for my efforts. The village of Badbea was sad but interesting and it struck me that this walk was really quite remote, as I didn’t pass through anywhere inhabited between my start and end point, albeit the A9 was always fairly close by (but mostly far enough away to not intrude much). It had been a good start to the trip, anyway. It also marked another milestone as I crossed counties, as I started the walk in a new county for me, Caithness and ended in Sutherland. Caithness is the most north easterly county of Scotland though that doesn’t actually mean I’ve completed the coast of Sutherland, as it has two distinct coast lines, with Caithness in between so I’ll cross back into Sutherland on the north coast, once I’ve walked the coastline of Caithness.

So far on my trips to Scotland I’d mostly stuck with the safe and usually cheap (if un-interesting) hotel options of Premier Inn or Travelodge. However I was now too far north to consider staying in Inverness as I’d spend hours driving there and back for each walk (as I had done to some extent on my last trip). However there aren’t really any “chain” hotels north of Inverness so I had booked into the Norseman Hotel in Wick, as I hoped to have reached Wick at least by the end of this stay. At £90 a night (albeit including breakfast) it was about double what I was used to paying in Inverness!

I drove north to Wick along the A9 and A99, retracing my steps in part from earlier in the day and continue along the A99 to Wick soon finding the hotel. It was in a quite nice location a short walk from the town centre and overlooking the river. The car park was full already but in front of that was a public car park which was free of charge (though with a 24-hour maximum stay), so that was OK. Sadly the main building itself looked like something from the Eastern Bloc, a large ugly concrete flat-roofed structure with most of the rooms in a 1970s building connected to it. On the plus side, the main bus stop for the town was literally right outside the door, which was handy. Fortunately inside was better and I soon got the keys to my room.

It wasn’t a terrible hotel but for the money paid (I thought it quite expensive) I was a little disappointed. The decor was very dated and the mattress so firm and old I could feel all the springs in it! The main problem however was the paper thin walls and the creaky floorboards above combined with the single-glazed window which did not keep out sound, so it was quite noisy especially early in the morning as the person in the room above me seemed to always be up before 6am, making the floor boards creek! Sadly the view out my window was of the back of a white van, parked about an inch from the window. But at least it was a good size room and a bed for the night.

Wick was a small town but it had all I needed. As I hadn’t booked an evening meal at the hotel I was pleased to find that the towns facilities also included a Whetherspoon pub which provided a cheap meal and drink at the end of the day.

Here are details of the public transport needed for this walk, note that bus is now very infrequent (it was more frequent when I did this walk).

Stagecoach buses route X99 : Inverness – Dornoch – Golspie – Brora – Helmsdale – Berriedale – Dunbeath – Latheron – Lybster – Wick – Reiss – Castletown – Thurso – Scrabster Ferry terminal. Twice per day Monday – Saturday and once per day on Sunday. It takes 15 minutes to travel between Helmsdale and Berriedale.

Here are the complete set of photos for this walk : Main Link.

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6 Responses to 302. Berriedale to Helmsdale

  1. Wow, a challenging walk. At least you escaped the dreaded A9, but that valley was sooooo steep! Very beautiful area, Jon.

    • jcombe says:

      Thanks Ruth yes I didn’t end up doing too much walking on the A9 for any walks thankfully but the alternatives aren’t great either in terms of ease of use, as I found (but you do get some lovely views). Yes it looked like a good idea at the time but I regretted going into the valley once I reached the bottom as it was a hard climb back up.

  2. 5000milewalk says:

    Looking at the steep valley into Ousdale Burn on Google Maps and aerial view I think I would have done the same as you. There seems to be a path down to it and across a bit further north but that would have added a mile and a half to your route.
    Besides, it’s those exciting bits that make the walks more memorable isn’t it! 😊 Well done Jon.

    • jcombe says:

      Yes I should have done a bit more research on Google Maps before setting off I think! I did use it to check the parking situation in Berredale but didn’t look out for a possible path which was a bit of a mistake. But as you say it’s these little adventures on a walk that stick in the memory!

  3. Ah, I recognise the Bridge Hotel – that’s where we met the Barbara Cartland fan!

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