MAYBE it’s the forbidding turret of lonely Lochdhu Lodge, the only notable landmark for miles around; or perhaps it’s the surrounding landscape of bleak and uninviting moorland. Either way, I’ve always thought Altnabreac would make an ideal setting for a Gothic horror story. There’s just something wild and vaguely mysterious about this remote corner of Caithness.
Mind you, the scariest thing on this trip looked like being the weather. I had caught the early-morning train from Wick so I could cycle back to the town, a route I hadn’t tackled for years.
As the train pulled away to resume its long and winding journey to Inverness, I wheeled the bike along what passes for a platform at Altnabreac and steadied myself against the south-west wind blasting across the moors. The first faltering shafts of daylight revealed ominously dark clouds directly above.
The rain began hammering down as I set off on the rusty-red forestry track towards Dalnawillan – four miles away, according to a wooden signpost that had taken a bit of a pounding from the elements.
Passing through the initial clump of conifers, I rounded the edge of a restless-looking Loch Dubh with the entrance to Lochdhu Lodge directly opposite. The track here is full of potholes, some of them more like ponds, and it didn’t take long for my feet to become thoroughly soaked. At the same time I was trying to avoid some of the sharper stones embedded in the track surface.
Yet it was exhilarating to be charging along with the wind at my back, and there was the brief but uplifting sight of a sunrise through a gap in the low mass of cloud over to the east.
Then came something I really hadn’t anticipated – traffic! Just as I’d stopped to take a photo of a flooded part of the track, a 4x4 came splashing by from the Lochdhu direction.
Soon I was freewheeling down towards Dalnawillan Lodge. This must have been a grand property at one time but now is a forlorn sight, its weather-beaten exterior reduced to a ghostly shade of grey. Past experience led me to brace myself for a frenzied volley of barking from the kennels at the nearby keeper’s cottage... but today the peace and quiet went undisturbed. The hellhounds had been silenced – or had at least been taken away.
From here on the track improves markedly and more or less follows a straight line all the way to the wide expanse of Loch More. I’d got about as far as Dalnaha when a Land Rover came towards me and I pulled over to let it pass. Two vehicles in the space of an hour! Is the whole world going car crazy?
The sun was emerging now and a rainbow loomed ahead as I followed the track around the north-western corner of the loch. This leads eventually to the relative luxury of a proper road – an offshoot of the B870 – and I took a detour here for a look at Loch More Cottage and the adjacent salmon ladder, where the peaty water was being churned into a foaming torrent.
The skies soon darkened again and sleety rain was flashing into my face as I passed Strathmore Lodge, its conical roof and square-shaped tower standing guard over the River Thurso.
I stopped at the bridge overlooking picturesque Westerdale Mill and made my way down the wooden steps to take a photo. Continuing on the practically empty B870 all the way to Watten, I then had the option of turning right and taking a direct route back to Wick along the A882. But I prefer the quieter B874, the Sibster road.
And so I went straight on at the village crossroads, curving round the eastern end of Loch Watten, where I paused to watch a pair of swans with a long procession of cygnets following dutifully behind.
After a gentle climb beyond the level crossing I turned right onto the B874; the fertile farmland to the north of Wick River made Altnabreac’s bleak moorland seem a distant memory. Suddenly I became aware of a mad cacophony of honking on the other side of a hedgerow – it turned out to be a whole field full of greylag geese.
The route I’d chosen meant minimal time spent on “A” roads: just a quick crossing of both the A9 (Causewaymire) and A882, then the last mile or so into Wick on the A99 from the Sibster turn-off.
On the outskirts of town, the clattering of train wheels echoed across the fields as the northbound mid-morning service came in. My sodden feet were numb with cold by now, and a warming shower beckoned. Otherwise I might just have been tempted to head over to the station, book another one-way ticket to Altnabreac, and do it all again...