To pass the time in John o’ Groats, recently and radically regenerated as a tourist destination, you can climb into an RIB boat and bump across the waves to Stroma (hullo sheep! hullo seals!), cycle round to Dunnet Head, the British mainland’s true northernmost point, or sip a single malt or two. But there’s a certain other sideshow to add to the laid-on activities – the spa treatments, the golf, horse-riding and geocaching (no, me neither): since John o’ Groats is 876 miles from Land’s End in Cornwall – the furthest you can be from anywhere else in the British Isles – this is where the doughty, the determined, the dogged athletes who run, cycle and rollerskate as far as they can for charity end up, or start out.
Like it or not, as you trot from your “residence”, one of 23 timber and stone eco lodges, to the Storehouse café or Outfitters shop/activity centre (villagey branding is key to the luxe self-catering formula of Natural Retreats, which also has properties in Cornwall, the West Highlands, and beyond), you’re likely to witness scenes that’ll have you in floods. Maybe I’m soppy, but watching a footsore bank teller stumbling into the arms of his sister, wife and wife’s best friend, all wearing ‘Go Iain’ T-shirts, is at least as emotionally rewarding as a day trip to Orkney to see the Ring of Brodgar.
The famous signpost was previously owned by a wicked company that charged pilgrims for being photographed next to it. Nowadays it’s free. It’s not the only thing that’s changed: you no longer see a trace of John o’ Groats’s old, tacky, tired self; a multi-million pound regeneration of the area over the last few years has fashioned something wholesome, handsome and bold, yet carefully pitched. The accommodation – built by GLM architects and designed by Manchester’s NoChintz – is appropriate for the outdoorsy families, walkers and charity-minded bank tellers who make it up to remote Caithness. They’ve preserved the emblematic whitewashed hotel, whose oldest, octagonal part now houses the Harbour Library. The 1875 extension is now known as White Toft, and the “Norse-style” new wing, The Inn, resembles a row of oversized primary-coloured beach huts, each with its own Toft designation (“toft” is the Old Norse term for a farm site).
Apartments in The Inn range from wee ones with fairly bare-bones design – cushions, colour on one wall, and lots of clean white and urban grey – to deluxe biggies for extended families or tent-dodging lovers, with antler or lobster-pot chandeliers, Babingtonesque “feature” log stacks, and – in the octagonal Penthouse – a free-standing copper tub in the bathroom upstairs in the octagonal Penthouse. Virtually everything has been designed and made in the UK, from Harris Tweed bedcovers to Steelite crockery from Stoke-on-Trent.
Natural Retreats and their design partners have done a cracking job up here. There will always be End-to-Enders to keep tourism buoyant at JOG, but now Highlands-lovers who’ve been wondering when they’ll finally make it to Orkney have a jaunty pit stop, too. One caveat: when I visited for the grand opening, the café food was lacklustre, apart from the jolly welcome pack with Reid of Caithness biscuits and chocolate buttons; if I were a plucky long-distance cyclist finishing up an 876-mile trip, I’d be up for a stonking mixed grill, lasagne or a good fish pie, not a panini. If you’re heading that way, perhaps ensure your welcome party stokes the fire and preps the pies – the kitchens in the Inn apartments are genuinely fully equipped. I also liked coming across vintage AA nature guides, Penguin’s Great Food series, a Monopoly set, and hand-painted signage in the Inn, which also has its very own Whale Tail font. John o’ Groats is back, and it’s beautiful. C
The Inn at John o’Groats, John O’Groats KW1 4YR, Scotland
+44 (0)843 636 7663; naturalretreats.com