Helmsdale grows on us strangely and has some odd quirks: the first being a favourite fish and chip shop of the novelist Barbara Cartland. It turns out that the previous proprietor saw her as something of a hero and the place still retains an overwhelming sense of pink Kitsch. There is nothing kitsch about the food however…a special fish tea consists of two enormous battered haddock with peas and a huge bowl of chips on the side. We struggle…including through the following night trying to digest vast amounts of batter and assorted carbs. The lads next to us manage this as well as a follow on of sticky toffee pudding. We imagine that they regard us effete southerners somewhat suspiciously…On a similar theme, we are slightly surprised that the (closed) hotel opposite the Bannockburn Arms was to have been the gay biker centre for touring NE Scotland. It would seem that many bikers come to do the North Coast 500 and that several may even be gay!
The Bannockburn Arms has some decent beer and we snigger like naughty schoolboys as we ask for another sheepshagger. Helmsdale also turns out to be a haven for escaping Londoners…the landlord is from Lewisham, a young man doing up his boat is from Beckenham and then to cap it all an old man (older than us) and his dog have lived in Maiden Newton.
We intended to sail on to Lybster, but the difficult entrance in Easterly winds, the lack of facilities and the offer from the Helmsdale harbourmaster of another night for free, convince us to spend a day at our leisure in Helmsdale. A bracing walk up the hill to the saltire flying proudly at the top…
…is followed by a meander along the river to a great little museum called Timespan, dedicated to all things herring. Paul is clearly entranced by muscular women smeared in herring guts and spends longer than strictly necessary describing them to Trish later that evening.
The following day is also less than helpful in terms of wind and we decide on a train ride to Thurso. The train ride turns out to be the highlight of the day and is a ride through peat bogs, salmon fishing rivers and more stags and their women than you would imagine. The only thing missing (for those of us old enough to remember) is Fife Robertson in a deerstalker and pipe. We take a bus out to as close to Dunnet Head as possible and walk out about halfway to the most northerly point in mainland UK (not John O’Groats).
The Orkneys, or more precisely Hoy on the left with just a mild seeming Pentland Firth in between. No sign of the Merry Men of Mey today!
A bus back leaves us with 2 hours in Thurso, which seems about 1 hour 55mins too long. The visitor centre however turns out to be a gem with a museum and gallery and a café with decent wifi (not to be sneered at in these parts). John starts early on the beer (Dark Island).
Back in Helmsdale, Paul cooks up a great Aloo Gobi and we decide on one last pint of (snigger) sheepshagger at the Bannockburn. It’s shut! The landlord looks at us through the window and ignores us. Sod ‘im. We go over slightly disgruntled to the Belgrave Arms…it’s a gem! Its friendly, there’s a real fire, some decent beer and some good company. A Ross County supporter turns out to be great company and also knowledgeable about winds tides and the sea in general. In common with so many others we have met, his eyebrows knit at the mention of crossing the Pentland Firth. “Yee’ll not be messing with that…”
Our final night in Helmsdale solves some issues…the buoys which we had been seeking in vain on our way in, are residing in the yard of the harbour master’s office! The smoke alarm in the loos still pings. It will probably still be pinging in a year’s time… or whenever we next visit. We all agree that were we ever back this way we’ll come back to Helmsdale.
We finish the evening listening to Pink Floyd….what great memories.