Saturday, 28 May 2011

Cape Crusaders

Cape Wrath

At the furthest most north westerly point on the British mainland stands the lighthouse at Cape Wrath, perched high above the point at which the North Sea and Atlantic ocean meet with the waves crashing relentlessly over the rocky headland. Getting to this isolated out post is dependent on the weather as the transport to cross the stretch of water breaking up the road access to the light house is just a small foot passenger ferry.

And I didn’t get there.

The weather was deemed to be “inclement” by the ferryman (that’s stomach churningly rough to you and me) and so ferry trips across this tidal stretch of water, the Kyle of Durness, were cancelled for the day.

This was unfortunate for a number of reasons, not least because this was the day of the Cape Wrath Marathon, a race that was to take competitors from the village of Durness to the light house and back with relay teams of 2, 3, 4 or 5 runners also completing sections of the route.
After a bit of hasty last minute reorganisation by the race organisers and a new out and back route inland materialised meaning that the race could go ahead. The marathon runners were set off first, I watched them leave as I ate my breakfast in bunkhouse kitchen, and then the relay teams who all ran pretty much together and the winning times of the various team combinations were calculated on accumulative race time.

Peter Buchanan running the marathon

Amanda (in the lead) and Richard (in blue rain jacket)

“Man up” had become the mantra of the week to be chanted when things got tough – thanks to Mary and Team Porty for that one – and given the weather conditions it was always destined to be hard going. I was doing the marathon relay as part of a team with Bert and so the half marathon course was basically 6.5 miles into a damp strong headwind and 6.5 miles back and this gave some very interesting race split times. For the record chanting “Man up” didn’t work, I still ran like a donkey. Still, it was a traffic free route through the bleak yet spectacular Sutherland countryside and so this more than made up for a pretty poor run. I picked up the pace a bit as I reached the last couple of miles and although Bert had run very well it was not enough to make any inroads on the lead of the husband and wife dream team of Ben and Hayley Livesey who were the clear winners.

The Cape Wrath Marathon and relay is the last race of the Cape Wrath Challenge. Held in the little village of Durness in the far North West of Scotland the event appears to be very much part of the community as the population of the village swells considerably with the influx of runners during the race week. A series of activities are put on alongside the races such as Scottish dancing lessons, a beach BBQ, a pub quiz, an archaelology tour and a history/ghost tour all to keep the runners entertained between the races.

Pub Quiz dream team
The race series is described as a “challenge” with the emphasis on personal challenge and as such there is no overall winner of the challenge but there are prizes for the winners of some of the individual races and on most days there was a choice of distances to be run. However, the blue riband event is the full marathon distance race.

We got our first taste of the weeks weather on the first day as we huddled up in a group trying to shelter from the wind and rain after the bus dropped us off at the start of the first race. On the first day there was a choice of either running the 10k or the half marathon, both races following the undulating road along the side of Loch Eribol back to the finish at the sports centre at Durness. Once the race had actually started and we were on the move the weather conditions were actually fine for running, if maybe a little windy, and the views (if you remembered to look up at all) of the beaches were amazing.

Bert (10k race)

Four of the five races finished at the sports hall located at the top of the hill so every race finished with a stiff little climb however after each race hot soup and sandwiches were served in the hall and focusing on this helped… As most of the races were in the morning there was plenty of time to go exploring before heading to the bar at the Sango Sands caravan park for food, beer and chat. Inevitably a lot of the chat involved the weather and I wasn’t envious of Graham of Team Porty who was camping that week in those windy conditions.

Post race chillin'

A potential problem with these running holidays is being stuck with the nerdy running types and their very bad running chat but you quickly work out who is best avoided. One fellow competitor had the cheek to have a go at me because I had opted to do the relay rather than the marathon, my decision made on the basis that I was not fit enough and I didn’t want to end up walking the marathon and he proceeded to lecture me as to how real hill runners walk up hills and tried to compare the hills of the cape wrath marathon with that of the Snowdon mountain race. Eh??!! Anyway Bert skilfully diffused the situation before it became a situation but spent the rest of the week saying that I can’t be a real hill runner as I keep running up hills. I did meet some really great folk though including one couple, Andy and Shirley, who it turned out I had met at the Swiss Alpine Mountain Marathon some 10 years ago and so it was good catching up on news about mutual aquaintances. Small world, this running community.

The trail race

The trail race

The next two days offered race options of either a 4 mile hill race or a 5.5 mile hill race and either an 8 mile or 10 mile trail race option on the Wednesday. Both of these races were fantastic although we did get the worst of the weather during the trail race. My favourite race of the week was without doubt the trail race which took in a lot of the different terrains and sights of the area from the stark beauty of the moorlands to the spectacular stretch of golden sand at Balnakeil bay. It passed through the area to the south of Durness where we had walked during the archaeology tour a couple of days earlier where the outlines of stone huts, houses and sheepfolds indicated a time when there was a much higher population in the area  scratching out a living from the land. The race route also took in Balnakeil church and house before heading north east and back to Durness.

Mary elegantly tackles the stepping stones during the hill race

Prize winners of the 10k and half marathon

Balnakeil house stands, lonely and isolated, on the edge of a stunning beach. Built in 1619 on the site of a much older house owned by the Bishops of Caithness it is believed to have been founded in 722AD. The house looks out on to the churchyard, of course leading to a wealth of ghost stories and so we decided to sign up for the ghost tour one night which doubled up as a history tour and which explained in detail the history of the church.
One interesting tomb is the resting place of a well known local bandit by the name of Donald MacMurdo. It is said that the tomb was built into the wall of the church to prevent anyone from dancing on his grave – and as well they might, he is credited with at least 18 murders, most of his victims meeting their end by being thrown down the waterfall at Smoo Cave.
In true ghost tour fashion there was even a crypt that you could take a peek inside if you were brave enough to see the skull of the long deceased occupant of the tomb staring right back at you. At least one person on the tour couldn’t bring themselves to do so and although I am not even remotely superstitious I couldn’t stop flashbacks of Michael Jackson’s thriller from springing to mind.

Balnakeil beach with Balnakeil house and church in the distance

The intrepid party on the "ghost tour"

As you take the road through Durness it passes over the top of Smoo Cave and it is possible to be totally unaware of the presence of this geological wonder as you drive past, or should I say drive over. It is not until you follow the winding path down the hill that the size of this cave becomes obvious. It is possible to take boat trips into its inner chambers but the torrents of water rushing down from the mountains into the cave made this impossible during the race week.

Water rushing down into Smoo Cave

There is a wealth of stories of smugglers and ghosts relating to the huge caverns and its thundering waterfalls not least one where the aforementioned villain Donald MacMurdo lured excise officers, who were investigating the possible presence of an illicit still, into the caves depths and then deliberately tipped the boat up as it passed through the raging waters. MacMurdo swam to safety leaving the excise officers to drown. Lucy, however, insisted on christening it "Smooch Cave" which somewhat ruined the dark atmosphere. Not sure what she had been up to....?

Smoo Cave

Both the hill race ad the trail race took in paths and tracks non of which were particularly testing climb or terrain wise but the cumlative effect of 3days of racing was starting to tell a bit. By now it was clear that team Porty were dominant particularly in the women’s race with Lucy and Amanda running really well whilst Ben Liveseywas making a clean sweep of the men’s races.

Lucy (The hill race)

A visit to the cake, chocolate, coffee and bookshops of the artists village now became a part of our daily routine. The artists village at Balnakeil lies about one mile west of Durness, within sight of Balnakeil Church and House. The buildings were built in the mid 1950’s as part of the M.O.D. early warning station in the event of nuclear attack. However, it was never commissioned, and in the 1960’s as fear of the cold war decreased, the buildings fell into disuse
The community website tells that the site was originally taken over by the council who planned to use them for industry but not enough interest was shown to make this viable and so it was reborn as a craft village.

“Advertisements were placed in national newspapers offering the buildings for minimal rent to those who had skills and viable business plans. The “Far North Project” as it was known, attracted applicants from all over Britain, and eventually the first pioneer residents made their way north to embark on a new experiment in living”.

I knew a little of the war time history of the area prior to visiting as Loch Eribol had been the scene of the surrender of a large number of German U boats at the end of World War 2 and I was excited to visit the place. These U boats were nicknamed the “Grey Wolves” and were part of Hitler’s strategy to sink allied shipping and to starve Britain into surrender. The U boats were scuttled, although not in Loch Eribol, but ive no doubt its waters hold a treasure trove of wartime history if diving them is an option.

I was even more delighted to find that Durness has extensive war history as the location of a chain home radar station which had been built during world war two, what has been described a secret and technologically advanced military base and this radar station was part of the chain home radar system erected in wartime around the coast of Great Britain. These stations were referred to as Air force ministry experimental stations and, along with   detecting any incoming air raids from enemy attacks, their purpose was also to guide the British air crews’ home to safety after missions abroad. The artefacts visible everywhere on the little headland of Lerinbeg tell the story of the vital part this radar station played in the defence of the country. It is still possible to see Nissan huts in the village, now used as storage sheds sitting in the fields with sheep grazing around them, the concrete bases of the gigantic radio masts survive along with air raid bunkers as well as various other buildings which were used during wartime as accommodation blocks, pill boxes and possibly munitions stores.

Pill boxes perched on the headland

The base of a mast

Not sure what this building would have been - maybe to monitor signals or maybe an air raid shelter?
This radar equipment looked nothing like that of what is recognisable as radar today. These fixed masts did not rotate and looked more like very large pylons and I have included this image to show what the villagers of Durness would have seen built beside them in the 1940s. I had found a kindred spirit in Graham, the former headteacher of Durness Primary school who loaned me books about the war time history of Durness so thanks to him for this information and the picture below. Graham was a mine of fantastic historical information and he conducted the archaeology and ghost tours and was happy to chat with me about WWII history while Bert snored in the corner...

Once I had discovered this I decided that I was in heaven and poor Bert was dragged around in the wind and rain to look at various war time structures. Simon did later say that Bert had his full sympathy – Simon has had plenty of experience of being dragged round various historic sites relating to WWII and for some reason it always seems to be in the rain.

Bert testing the structural stability of WWII buildings

Thursday’s race was in the afternoon so that gave us an opportunity to walk to Fariad Head in the morning.

The view from Faraid Head

The Target Zero beach race was a race in which the competitors had to guess their time prior to knowing what the course would be and then run the race without a watch and the runner who came in closest to their predicted finish time – Target Zero- was the winner. There was also the option to run in fancy dress and Lucy did team Porty proud with her “Mrs Mop” outfit. Even more impressive was that she did the race wearing wellies!

Having neither the inspiration to pull together a decent fancy dress costume nor being anywhere near convinced I could guess an accurate time for the course I opted to just treat it as a race and to go flat out. Bert, Peter and Graham did the same, Peter wearing a Scottish flag and a tartan hat just to keep in the spirit of things. This time it was a lovely sunny afternoon but very chilly with the ever present wind whipping up the sands from the dunes. The out and back course took us over the dunes then back to the start point at Balnakeil house. The tide wasn’t fully out as the lead runners got there and so I did manage to trip and give myself an all over immersing in the briny.

Target Zero beach race (Peter, Graham, Bert and me)

Everybody from the village seemed to take part in this race, even the children were let out of the school for the afternoon so that they could take part.
After the race a few brave souls went for a swim and I contented myself with lying in the (relatively) warm waters of a rock pool. Due to the weather the post race BBQ was relocated to the sports hall.

The last night of the Cape Wrath challenge is the prize giving and Celidh and the highlight of this is the buffet meal that rivals those of Barra and Westray races, the tables were heaving under mountains of wonderful fresh seafood and as for the desserts, even I couldn’t manage to sample them all. The closest race of the week was to see who could get to the pudding table first!

Lucy won the trail race


Post race fun

I have to confess to being a bit of a light weight regarding the celidh that night as after a few shots of some strong whisky I was more than happy to go back to the lovely bunkhouse where we were staying and to curl up in the warmth with a cup of tea.

Kyle of Durness

Meanwhile Simon had been away to Malaga with “the lads” and appeared to have spent 5 days in pubs, restaurants, nightclubs and sitting on the beach and came back stripy as a hangover obviously impairs your ability to apply sun cream. I happily regaled my holiday tales of running in poor weather conditions, 5 races in a week, descriptions of the scenery and all the facts and stories that I had learnt about the history of the area with a certain air of superiority, as you might expect…. And I truly wasn’t envious of him.

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