Wednesday 17th July 2019
It’s been a bucket list ambition for a few years. Travel to mainland Britain’s most north westerly point at Cape Wrath and visit by far the remotest bus terminus alongside its famous lighthouse.
You can’t get more remote than the end of an isolated eleven mile single track road which has no other road connections. It starts at a jetty slipway served only by a passenger ferry, passes no civilisation for eleven miles, and ends at a lighthouse where just two people live in adjacent accommodation.Arriving at Cape Wrath you’re further north than Moscow and Vladivostok. You’re closer to the Arctic Circle than you are to London. Head due west and you’ll reach Newfoundland.
I’ve long wanted to try the unique bus route which takes you to Cape Wrath. The trek entails a ten minute walk from the main A838 road, a couple of miles south of Durness, to the jetty where the summer only passenger ferry (Britain’s smallest passenger ferry) takes you across the Kyle of Durness from where the minibus begins the spectacular ride along the eleven mile winding and hilly, rough surface narrow track to Cape Wrath itself.
‘Track’ is very much the description of this ‘road’. Built in the second half of the nineteenth century to take nothing wider than a horse and cart and service the lighthouse it’s still as narrow and to the same unmade up rough surface as its original state. It’s officially adopted by Highland Regional Council and known as the U70 road – it’s marked on Ordnance Survey maps as an unfenced track. Unsurprisingly Google’s camera car hasn’t driven it.
There are passing places but many are now too soft or dangerous to use. It’s said there are only about five effective places along the entire eleven mile track where a minibus could pass. It’s essential therefore for the minibus drivers (there are often two buses in use with a third spare) to keep in touch by radio to make sure they don’t meet away from those passing places. Luckily there’s no other traffic.
It takes just over an hour to travel from the jetty to the lighthouse – that’s an average speed of around 10mph which reflects the track surface conditions and the skill of the drivers. Tyres don’t last more than one summer season.
This journey has unique all over it. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere in Great Britain. It’s simply the best public transport experience I’ve ever had; and I’ve had a few. It breaks through the quirkiness scale barrier.
It beats anything I’ve enjoyed travelling through Britain’s most scenic National Parks. It beats the amazing journeys I’ve taken in the Outer Hebrides, Shetlands and Skye. It even beats the most spectacular railway journeys on the West Highland and Kyle of Lochalsh lines.
It’s simply the best.
The journey does need careful planning and an element of good luck to successfully accomplish it. Fortunately James, who runs the bus service, maintains a very helpful website which explains the logistics of the journey (VisitCapeWrath) setting out what to expect and he’s even available on the phone to give reassuring advice as I found a couple of times when I gave him a ring to check finer details.
The luck element includes for the ferry crossing: avoiding severe weather and an extreme low tide and for the minibus ride: the military not closing the road as the area is used for live bombing exercises (thankfully not usually during the summer), and more pertinently there being enough people at the time you want to travel to justify the minibus running – a minimum of six is desired.
It’s probably safest to stay overnight in Durness and take the first ferry across the Kyle of Durness in the morning at about 8.45-9.00am. That way you have more chances to make the journey during the day if the aforementioned criteria aren’t met. But that’s not easy when you’re a BusAndTrainUser on a public transport schedule to such a remote part of Britain with few options.
I took the 10:41am train from Inverness yesterday morning on the Far North Line (to Wick) as far as Lairg arriving 12:20pm. That departure is an easy connection from the Sleeper’s arrival from Euston although on this occasion I took the easyJet option the previous day from Gatwick (cheaper and quicker although I ended up paying for an expensive overnight stay in tourist filled Inverness on Monday).Durness based Far North Bus company runs the once a day route 806 providing a great connection from Lairg station at 12:25pm and the bus will wait a decent time in case the train runs late.Route 806 is one of my favourite bus routes. The scenery is spectacular with lochs, mountains and forests and no more than two dozen houses spread along the 37 miles single track A838 road heading north westwards out of Lairg towards Durness.
My friendly bus driver Danny was a bit concerned to hear my travel plans included Cape Wrath due to the exceptionally low tide that afternoon and I took his advice and rang the ferryman to check things out as we travelled along and Danny even kindly stopped the bus to improve mobile reception.
Previously, James the Cape Wrath minibus owner, had been a bit non committal about timings and when I got through to ferryman Malcolm he advised the next ferry was at 2pm and after that it would be 3.30pm but only if there were enough people travelling but at least he reassured me the tide would be OK. We were due to arrive at about 2.30pm.
In the meantime there was plenty of time to chat with Danny as he drove along this wonderfully scenic road from Lairg which after an hour reaches Scotland’s main south to north road from Ullapool to Durness at Laxford Bridge.
Here the minibus heads temporarily south down the A894 towards Ullapool to serve the village of Scourie. This dog-leg takes ten minutes before turning round and retracing the road back to Laxford Bridge and heading north until it reaches the turning westwards for Kinlochbervie Harbour which adds another ten minute detour before turning round and retracing back to the main road again. That’s forty minutes added to the journey to serve these two locations.
Yesterday I was the only passenger for the entire journey so the added mileage was unnecessary but passengers have boarded and alighted in both places on previous trips, so you never know. Returning to Lairg on the bus this morning five passengers boarded in Scourie.
After another twenty minutes heading north we reached the turning for the Kyle of Durness ferry and Danny very kindly drove along to the jetty itself rather than drop me at the road end as he was still concerned whether the ferry would be running and I might end up stranded.
It was about 2.35pm and no ferry was in sight and the rather unhelpful information board said the next ferry would depart at 2pm!
I began to think my luck had run out and the ferry had packed up beaten by a low tide and paucity of passengers. But then a small boat appeared in the distance across the narrow channel of water stretching across the Kyle and I also spotted a minibus coming down the hillside to the jetty on the far side. It turned out Malcolm uses the time in between the infrequent short ferry crossings to do some fishing but he was now back in ferry mode.
He brought back four passengers and a couple of bikes but I’m not sure how much fish! This was about 3pm and Malcolm explained he’d be crossing again at 3.30pm if there were six people by then and promptly drove off in his van.
I was pleased and relieved to see a young holidaying couple from Northern Ireland and their lovely dog had now arrived so we were halfway to our quorum and when Malcolm returned at 3.30pm miraculously three more passengers had arrived and we set sail.It really was an extreme low tide; halfway across skilfully navigating the very narrow channel of water Malcolm asked us all to sit at the front end of the boat as it had started to ground! Luckily that worked and we arrived at the far side jetty just as another minibus came down the track with a dozen returning passengers.Two of our number decided they’d enjoy a walk rather than take the minibus but Stuart, our minibus driver, was happy to take just the four of us and dog on the journey to Cape Wrath. Thank goodness!But not before Stuart checked the position of the other minibus which as it happened wasn’t far away returning empty to the jetty so we waited for that driver to arrive and then we were off.The area to the Cape has been officially dubbed Europe’s ‘Last Great Wilderness’ and you soon see why. The steep gradient as the narrow track winds its way up from the jetty is just a foretaste of the amazing journey ahead.
Small marker posts along the track count down each of the eleven miles to the lighthouse. After a couple of miles you reach the beginning of the Cape Wrath Bombardment Range with its high profile warning signs and barrier arm to prevent any further movement when the military are practising manoeuvres by firing live ammunition and dropping live bombs. It’s the only range in Western Europe where thousand pound bombs are live fired and any NATO member can use it.Stuart pointed out a crater just a few feet from the track as we passed by which appeared after a bombing exercise making you realise how necessary those barriers are.The Ministry of Defence own one of the very few properties alongside the track and have refurbished it for use as a base and accommodation during exercises.One other property we passed is used as a summer home, but Stuart observed sometimes only for a couple of weeks a year and one or two other properties have clearly been abandoned.
There are a few bridges to carry the track over small rivers luckily just wide enough to take our minibus. “It showed great foresight by the original track builders” Stuart quipped.The newest bridge was built by the Royal Engineers and Royal Marines as recently as 1981. Before that minibuses had to navigate a ford at this point. It’s said in the early days of the minibus service it was common practice for the driver along with a willing passenger to wade out into the river with a rope strung between them marking the width of the vehicle and if the water stayed below knee level it was safe for the minibus to cross.After about seven miles you get a view of the almost hidden beautiful Kearvaig Bay on the northern coastline.
This must be one of the most gorgeous bays that’s rarely used save by a few intrepid walkers including the two women who opted to walk from the ferry and were still heading there when we passed them on our return (you might spot them below) – but it looked as though it would defintely be worth their effort.Continuing on to Cape Wrath the track enters what is its most exciting and challenging section. With four miles to go we leave the firing range and cross Kearvaig Bridge offering just four inches clearance for our minibus.
The track continues to follow the contours of the landscape but at the tenth mile the track is carved out of the valley side incorporating a sharp drop to the nearside and a soft verge. This section is called the ‘Wall of Death’. Stuart’s driving skills made it look easy but I wouldn’t like to try it!
The track finally reaches the Cape Wrath lighthouse and the end of the journey.
James has organised things so you have about 45 minutes to wander around and take in the sheer wonderment of reaching this exposed extreme north western tip of the country …. by bus. There are spectacular views towards the Arctic Circle northwards…
…. and westwards to the North Atlantic…
The lighthouse has only been automated since 1998 and now lies deserted except for John and his daughter who live in the adjacent somewhat ramshakle property.
They provide refreshments and a few souvenirs in the Ozone cafe in their property and you have to marvel at the logistics they surmount of no mains water, gas, electricity or sewage connections, nor mobile phone signal yet running a small commercial business reliant on the small number of tourists who make the journey and then buy something!
They bring all their supplies, including water, from Durness once a week where their post is also kept. Rainwater is harvested for the toilet and washing – there’s a notice in the bathroom to use sparingly!
We passed John’s daughter about four miles along the track from the jetty where she can just pick up a mobile signal so was spending the afternoon online shopping on the back seat of her car!
Back at the lighthouse John has an interesting collection of abandoned vehicles and we passed another minibus he used to use, parked up along the track and awaiting the fitting of a part after it broke down some time ago.
There were also a few sheep who apparently now roam wild as they’ve learnt to out manoeuvre the farmer’s sheep dog by escaping to precarious ledges on the cliffs and are now well separated from the flock on the other side of the firing range.The lighthouse’s massive foghorn hasn’t sounded for many years but you can just imagine the sound it used to make on a night of thick fog and blowing a force ten gale as often relaid on Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast!
Our journey back to the jetty was as enjoyable as the outward by seeing all the spectacular views from a different angle including steep inclines up instead of down and Stuart continuing with his fascinating commentary.
Malcolm was waiting for us at the jetty as we arrived soon after 6.30pm and Stuart left the minibus overnight alongside the other one already parked up and joined us for the trip back over the Kyle of Durness which was now much faster flowing with the tide well in.
Stuart’s driving day was done having completed three return trips and he kindly gave me a lift into Durness to save the lengthy walk. This is his eighth season of driving one of the Cape Wrath minibuses and he obviously enjoys it and provides a truly great experience for visitors.
We chatted on the way back to Durness and he agreed with my thoughts that there’s huge potential to increase business and make the ‘visitor experience’ even better. Publicising a definitive timetable for departures on James’s website and at the jetty would be reassuring as would booking tickets online and taking bank cards. The current cash only return ticket price is £7.50 paid on the ferry and £13 on the minibus.
I got the impression Malcolm independently guards his revenue stream and suspect he would resist agreeing to a combined ticket and perhaps making things a bit more streamlined.
I’ve thought about it a bit more since yesterday and now think the quirkinesses of the whole arrangement is part of its charm, and who’d want the remoteness of the Cape to become overrun with tourists; in fact I hesitate at writing too effusive praise here about just how fantastic and brilliant an experience it was for fear too many readers will follow in my tracks.
Luck was on my side yesterday – I was out of the military practice season, the weather was stunningly idyllic, that low tide wasn’t too low, the departure time of 3.30pm just fitted my schedule and five fellow passengers turned up just at the right time.
I don’t think I’m going to trounce this travel experience any time soon.
PS You might be wondering how James gets the three minibuses over to the Cape with no road access and only a tiny pedestrian ferry. They’re taken over at the beginning of each season and brought back at the end on a special motorised pontoon barge which crosses when the sea conditions are just right – a calm, wind free day. Diesel fuel is brought over as needed in 25-litre drums during the season. The photo below is taken from a splendid guidebook on sale for just £3 by David M Hird and well worth buying if you’re thinking of visiting.
I used to run a bus company but in retirement am a full time passenger travelling all over Britain enjoying its splendid scenic delights by bus and train. Currently social distancing at home.