A Journey into Scotland : Part 51
Bringing it All Back
The Caithness electricity pole four were making solid progress on the bacon, the white pudding and the runny egg. The cyclist from England was going more slowly. Of all the meals in the day breakfast is the one to be savoured the most. There are many reasons for not drinking to excess. Being able to enjoy breakfast has to be high on my list.
That I was hungover was certain. But, it was a different sort of hangover. I knew the effects of beer on my system. I was never one of life’s natural drinkers and by the time I’d drunk my peg I was ready for bed. This was usually long before any serious level of drunkenness was able to come into play. My constitution simply didn’t allow me to drink enough beer to over-scramble my brain. When I awoke I was always a good deal less inebriated than when I went to bed. Beer went through the system and the head cleared. Whisky was proving to be a different proposition.
With beer you go to bed drunk and wake up sober, relatively speaking. With whisky it was proving to be the other way round. I’d woken with a head of concrete and a mouth as dry as a Saharan breeze. I used the glass above the sink to re-hydrate and had suddenly been moved into a state of intoxication that was new to me. I made it back onto the landing before the floor began to move. The choice of the five doors didn’t seem so important now. I had to sit down to stop the world from beginning to rotate. I’d felt a novice when it came to drinking the supposed “water of life”. I was proving equally inept at coping with the aftermath.
Realising I couldn’t stay out on the landing and not being in any state to try the wrong door, and find myself fumbling around in the dark of somebody else’s bedroom, I went down the stairs and out of the unlocked back door.
My bicycle was standing red and proud against the whitewashed wall of the inn. It was night but clouds were skeetering across a moon that, if not quite full, was quite as full as I was. I wasn’t dressed for moon bathing. The long distance cyclist doesn’t carry brushed cotton pyjamas and I was wearing nothing but boxer shorts and a tee shirt. This didn’t matter as much as it might to a totally sober man. I was relishing the coolness and some ground that stayed where it was when I walked on it. I re-trod the path down to the bay and stood for as long as it took. I had no sense of time. It sounds quite Romantic now but it wasn’t. I had found somewhere to be alone with the most unpleasant of feelings. To be stumbling in both body and mind. I wish I had been able to enjoy the bay under a magical sky but I wasn’t. It was horrible: a nightmare state of mind that I couldn’t switch off or wake up from.
Eventually I felt clear enough to go back to the hotel. The door remained unlocked and those at the top of the stairs no longer seemed an unfathomable mystery. By now I was clear-headed enough to comprehend the concept of room numbers. I curled up in a warm and welcoming bed and willed myself back to sleep simply because being awake was much too much.
The breakfast was glorious and I still feel some guilt about not being able to fully appreciate it; to do it justice. It did me good though and so did getting back onto the bicycle and heading east.
The mind is a complex and wonderful thing. At one stage it has me sitting on a rotating staircase or a shoreline where the ocean lies flat and motionless and the sand rolls in waves. A few hours later it is remembering things that had lain forgotten in some quiet and dusty shelf of memory. The first fifty miles of my journey had been on roads that meant something to me. The next were all opening out like the next page of an unread book. And now I was back where the turn of the path, the twist of the light, the frame of a wall meant something. I have a small selection of photographs from the early sixties when we lived up here. Very few, but enough to trigger memories of days out. But this was a forgotten world. As I approached a river mouth it was just another fine and noble sight until, suddenly and unexpectedly, I remembered it with my former mind. I knew there was a bridge down there. A suspension bridge. A bridge that wobbled as you walked on it. As children, we called it the wobbly bridge. We came here often. Had picnics here. Here were sand witches as well as sandwiches. I felt like Scrooge on being taken back to his old school.
The old bridge had been washed away in winter floods some time before. The new bridge was more solid but much smaller. In my infant memory, this bridge had been as big as The Golden Gate. For thirty minutes or more I sat in the dunes and watched small ghosts play on the sand. The memories flooded back and tears of simple happiness sprang from my eyes. For the second time in just a few hours I was glad I was alone to absorb the moment.
We measured our days out along that coastline; it was invariably towards Sutherland that we went. A big black Wolseley with four children in the back. Crossing the county line “Now we’re in Caithness,” my father would declaim. “And now, we’re in Sutherland.” The most prominent landmark wasn’t Dunnet Head with its lighthouse (mainland Britain’s most northerly point), nor the Orkneys lying offshore. The most familiar and friendly sight was a nuclear reactor. A series of low lying buildings, some chimneys and a huge green ball. Like a monstrous ball cock from some giant’s cistern. This was Dounreay and this was the reason we lived up there.
The green ball is a 139 foot high steel sphere. Inside this almost comical landmark was Britain’s first water cooled fast breeder reactor. There were eventually five nuclear reactors on the site. What my father’s role was has remained something of a mystery. There were civil reactors and military installations at Dounreay. I do know that there were an awful lot of people from Barrow up there. Barrow people have long been world leaders in engineering. A great deal of Dounreay was built by Barrovians. It was to test the generation of power for domestic use and for the fuelling of submarines. The whole plant always seemed very peaceful to me. Always a friendly sign that we were nearly back home. And yet, a major reason it was built there was a genuine fear of explosion. If anything had gone wrong it would be a terrible disaster but it would be a terrible disaster nearly 700 miles away from Westminster.
Caithness is flat and windswept. I was coming in with a strong breeze behind me but the wind was knocked out of my sails when the town of Thurso came into view. The whole journey, the imagining, the planning, the riding had been leading up to this moment. Five hundred and fifty miles of cycling, a near lifetime of waiting had led to this moment. This very place in space and time. And once again the memories started to tumble into place. I suddenly knew that I was about to pass an old house painted white and if I turned up the road past this then I would be heading back towards my old front door. I had only just started school when I was last here and yet I suddenly knew my way around. It was both wonderfully exhilarating and not a little bit scary.
“Fair seed time had my soul and I grew up
Fostered alike by beauty and by fear.”*
William Wordsworth from The Prelude