John O’Groats was once voted the most dismal place in Scotland – a depressing accolade for what is the end of an 800-mile journey for many adventurers.
All that used to greet weary travellers was a derelict hotel, while the stickers that plastered the famous signpost were the only evidence of their triumph in reaching the Scottish landmark.
Nowadays, this former carbuncle has turned into a spot that’s at least worth the hours of travel it takes to reach here – but it’s by far from the only place worth exploring in the most northerly corner of Great Britain, as I discover.
The coastline at Wick has a spectacular, rugged appearance – perfect for dramatic photographs
Cairns formed from stacks of pebbles beside turquoise seawater in a natural harbour below Sinclair Girnigoe Castle near Wick
The most northerly point in mainland Britain: The famous signpost is one of the few landmarks at John O’Groats, aside from the now-renovated Natural Retreats guesthouse (pictured)
The scenery surrounding Wick and John O’Groats is best seen by boat, where you can journey along the rugged cliffs beside the seagulls
It’s taken six hours, including a train, a flight and a winding 20-minute car journey along stunning Highlands roads, to reach Wick, the main town up here in the far north of the mainland.
Part of me is desperate to see the very edge up at John o’ Groats and stare into the sea from the most northerly point in Britain. But that’s not until later.
First, a whirlwind tour of the town, starting with one of its main exports: whisky. We’re at the Old Pulteney distillery, which is one of the most northerly, to see first hand how its whisky is made.
Single malt whisky has been made on this spot for nearly 200 years and photographs of factory workers in flat caps and overalls are plastered proudly on the walls.
It’s like stepping back in time as there is minimal modern technology here and it’s a much smaller operation than the Glenfiddichs and Glenlivets of the world.
The whisky is largely made in the same way as it always has been. It’s hot, sweaty and the air smells of malt. It’s quite literally intoxicating.
It’s hard to imagine a time when this bustling factory fell quiet, but for more than 25 years Old Pulteney ceased operations.
The Old Pulteney whisky distillery has been on the same site for nearly 200 years, as it was founded in 1826. It is one of Scotland’s smaller distilleries but is well worth a tour
The cliffs surrounding Wick are stunning, with plenty of caves that a boat tour can take you into. Some parts of the cliffs you can only see by boat
Wick is on the eastern coastline and the scenery surrounding the small town is truly breathtaking, even during the unpredictable Scottish weather
Imogen Blake tried the whiskies in the cold barrel room of the distillery where she found they tasted much nicer in context
Most people know prohibition came to America, but fewer know that a much longer ban on alcohol also came to this town in 1922 – the fault of drunken fishermen who spent all their money on booze instead of their families.
It was only lifted after 25 years in 1947. I’ve never much liked whisky, but tasting it in context transforms the spirits into tipples to truly savour, especially when you know how close Old Pulteney came to closing forever.
Wick may be a small town of just 7,000 people – you barely see another soul in sight as you wander around the town – but there is a small museum here run by elderly volunteers. They have collected relics over generations to stuff every corner of a couple of townhouses with the colourful history of this place.
My favourite moment is when tour guide Harry – who is well into his 90s – points out his mother and aunt sorting herrings in a picture from the late 1800s, when Wick was one of the largest fishing ports in Europe.
It makes me pause. When these wonderful volunteers pass on, who will take their place to tell the colourful story of this town?
You can spy small islands off the coast by the small town of Wick
One of the main features of the stunning and barren countryside surrounding Wick are the ruined stone cottages and farmhouses, which add a dramatic touch to the landscape
You can take part in whisky tastings at the Old Pulteney distillery among barrels full of whisky
Inside one of the lodges at the Natural Retreats self-catering accommodation at John O’Groats, which are modern and sleek
The formerly derelict guesthouse has been transformed into unique self-catering apartments called Natural Retreats. You can either stay in one of the multi-coloured blocks, the main guesthouse or lodges. All look out over the dramatic coastline
A boat trip jolts our group back to our senses quickly. As we race over the waves in an old lifeboat at 25 knots (nearly 30mph), it’s more thrilling than any roller coaster I’ve ever been on as the rough seas crash down over our faces. We only pause momentarily to gawp at the caverns and towering cliffs. We even sight a family of otters, lounging on a sheltered beach that only a boat could reach.
I feel truly at one with nature – particularly as my poor iPhone does not survive the journey.
When we finally reach John O’Groats, it feels like an anticlimax after the rush of the sea. There is nothing here but the signpost and a hotel. It feels black and white compared to the secret vibrancy of Wick. That is, until you get inside the luxurious self-catering apartments at Natural Retreats.
Gazing out onto the sea over a morning coffee, this place feels anything but dismal, as this northerly spot was once named.
It may appear isolated and dull – and the unpredictable Scottish weather means it’s often bracingly cold and windy up here too. But scratch the surface, and there’s a lot more to explore in this barren corner than just the famous signpost at the end of Britain.