Text and photographs by Florence Newman
(Click images for larger versions.)
Many of my earliest rambles in Caithness (the county constituting the northeastern corner of Great Britain) were inspired by names on the Ordnance Survey map (OS Landranger 12: Thurso, Wick and surrounding area) or by brochures in the Visitor’s Centre in Thurso (“Three Walks in Thurso,” “Walks: Caithness”). My favorite walk to my favorite place in Caithness came from a Visitor’s Centre brochure:
Cross the pedestrian bridge over the Thurso River inlet, up the sidewalk beside Castletown Road
Carry straight on when the road bears right, passing on your left the nineteenth-century folly reminiscent of Rapunzel’s tower with its crenellated turrets (pausing to wish you lived there, like the people who have put flower pots on the window ledges and parked their VW inside the wrought iron gates)
Follow the single lane road between two fields—looking back and down toward the coast, you can just see the ruins of Thurso Castle, constructed in the 1860’s and hardly worth your trouble
Take the first left and march confidently into the working farm, wending your way between aluminum-sided barns and balloon-wheeled tractors until you face the rocky shore and the Pentland Firth churning beyond
To your right, obscured by tall grass, is the start of a narrow track along the coast that leads after a mile or so to a sea cave hidden beneath mossy headlands
During the walk, to be undertaken on the rare sunny day, whenever you are not watching your feet to avoid twisting an ankle in the rut gouged by sheep hooves (the typical meaning of “track” in this brochure), you have a spectacular view of the Firth, its choppy green waters fringed by cascading flagstone slabs and interrupted only by an occasional fishing boat bobbing off Dunnet Head or by the white wake of the Pentland ferry shuttling day-trippers to and from the Shetland Islands
Divert mid-way to the walled lookout that juts from the rocky shore, admire the blue arc of the sky as it meets the sea, and imagine the many wives and sweethearts who had waited here, often in vain, to catch first sight of the vessel bringing their sailor home; note, as you leave, the simple cross impressed on the seaward wall
Eventually the land will rise to precipitous heights and the even spread of shoreline will give way to steep tiers and stacks of stone, like some gigantic abstract sculpture garden growing from the waves
You will hear the sea cave before you see it
In fact, you would not see it at all if the brochure hadn’t told you to look for it near where some power lines sweep down to another farm. What the brochure doesn’t tell you is that when you leave the path and pick your way out a sloping promontory and sit on a dry patch of loam and pull off your shoes and socks and lie back with your eyes closed in the warm sun, you will be embraced by a symphony of sounds: the deep, slow, thunderous throb of the ocean waves hitting the base of the headland, the crescendo and decrescendo of waves rushing over the jagged slate shelves, the haunting echoes of the longer waves as they surge into the caverns hollowed out of the cliff, century by century, and the faint, melodic plink-plonk of rainwater dripping from ledge to mossy ledge before releasing into the sonorous cove below.
I had been to the sea cave perhaps a half a dozen times before I felt the slightest urge to venture any further than that loamy bed. One day, after a plowman’s lunch (a thick slab of cheddar cheese between two slices of bread slathered with butter) and a snooze on the mossy ledge, I climbed back up to the track, and instead of retracing my steps, continued on along the headland. Here and there among the wind-swept grasses were cement platforms cracked with age and sprouting weeds and wildflowers; some still held rusting iron beams, the remains of artillery installed to repel German aircraft during World War II. How many days had been spent fortifying this remote stretch of Scottish shore against enemy attack? How many nights had been spent listening for the drone of bombers and scanning the horizon for their ominous shadows? Those anxious days and nights, for all of their intensity, had ended long ago, leaving only scars of white cement on the landscape, while in the hidden cave below, the heart of the ocean continued to beat.
© Copyright 2014, Florence Newman.
Florence Newman is professor emerita at Towson University, where she taught in the English Department for 27 years. A specialist in Middle English literature, she has published and delivered conference papers on Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and medieval women writers. She grew up in Blacksburg, Va., reading books in her parents’ library and eating strawberries from her grandfather’s garden. She currently lives with her husband in Towson, Md., escapes occasionally to their farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and travels farther afield when time, energy, and finances permit.
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