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Approaching John O’Groats, expectations are not high. It is Scotland’s “most dismal town”, according to architecture magazine Urban Realm in 2010. An “uninspiring tourist trap,” warned my guidebook. Locals call it the “end of the world”. And then there’s the advice given to “end-to-enders” setting out on the 1,000 mile bike ride, walk or drive between John O’Groats and Land’s End in Cornwall: start in Scotland. Because once you leave John O’Groats, they say, things can only get better.
“A wee bit harsh but, yes, they don’t spend too long here,” says Walter Mowat, 61, of the 200,000 annual visitors to the small town, stuck out on the furthest northeastern tip of mainland Britain.
Mowat is one of just 310 people living in John O’Groats. He was born here and has never lived anywhere else. Over the years, the lifeboatman-cum-fireman-cum-shop-owner has seen many disgruntled tourists. “They come, take a quick peep over the cliff and bugger off straight back down the road they came from,” he says.
This was hardly surprising. Until recently, the landscape down by the seafront – open, sheep-strewn, with a scattering of low-level houses – was dominated by a derelict 19th-century hotel, left empty since the mid-1990s. “It’s the first thing you see when you arrive,” says Mowat. “And it was a bloody embarrassment.”
It gets worse. Spare a thought for the long-distance walkers and cyclists who finished their cross-country quest only to be greeted by a caravan park, a shabby portable café and a tacky souvenir shop selling shortbread, whisky and kilts. That was pretty much it. Even the iconic end-to-end signpost went missing most days, whenever the photographer who charged people for pictures decided to go home, taking it with him.
Things are finally changing. A consortium of local authority, local government development agency and private visitor attraction company have joined forces with upmarket holiday home operator Natural Retreats to shake things up. Together they have spent £7.25m.
The caravan park and souvenir shop remain. But the hotel, built on the seafront in 1875, reopened under Natural Retreats’ auspices last weekend, as the Inn at John O’Groats. Its whitewashed exterior, slate roof and gabled windows have all been impressively restored; pretty Scandinavian-style wooden houses have been tacked on to its side, painted in blue, green, yellow and red.
Inside, the aesthetic is sparse but chic, all pale wood and cool colours. There are light and spacious living areas, stone chimney breasts and copper light shades. There are mini libraries, wood-burning stoves and high-tech kitchens. If the idea is to enjoy the countryside with all the comforts and services of a five-star hotel, the Inn at John O’Groats is a success. (My only complaint is that the Natural Retreats café and bar, which sells light meals and supplies, closes at 8pm; the only place to eat out in the evening is the Seaview hotel half a mile away.)
Slightly farther back from the seafront, there are 23 new self-catering chalets with timber cladding and floor-to-ceiling glass frontages. All have stunning views, looking out on to rugged fields stretching to the Pentland Firth, the narrow channel of water separating Caithness and Orkney, and the bleak beauty of Stroma, an island two miles away across the sea. One evening the sky behind was striped orange to purple. All of this means that it’s worth spending time slumped on the sofa or, weather permitting, in a deckchair, which I did, until curiosity drew me farther out.
Natural Retreats is the creation of 43-year-old Matthew Spence. Nine years ago, when his family’s sheep farm in the Swale Valley, North Yorkshire, was struggling commercially, Spence suggested creating some holiday accommodation. His family thought it was a “mad idea” but he went ahead with the plan. “All I had was £16,000, a very old computer and a maxed-out credit card,” he tells me.
He quit his job in Coca-Cola’s marketing department in London and, after two years’ working to get planning permission, opened 16 high-end chalets on the family farm in 2006. Then things started to move fast: today the company has 137 employees and 14 sites in the UK, Ireland, Wales, Lanzarote and the US.
The restoration of the derelict hotel was the trickiest part of the John O’Groats project, Spence explains. It would have been a lot cheaper – and easier – to have knocked it down and build something new in its place. “But then any lasting legacy of John O’Groats would have been gone forever.” Rather than conventional hotel rooms, the Inn now offers 16 apartments, all with kitchens and between one and four bedrooms.
All of the sites and properties managed by Natural Retreats differ but the main aim, Spence explains, is “to get tourists seeking high-spec accommodation into areas of spectacular natural beauty and great wildlife.”
It was “foul, wet and windy” the first time Spence visited John O’Groats. But this wasn’t a deterrent: “Straight away I wanted to expose more people to the wildness of this place – to try to make them stay for a couple of days rather than leaving a few minutes after they’d arrived.”
“At John O’Groats,” he continues, warming to his theme, “you can watch killer whales for seven months of the year. They come right outside the hotel. There are basking dolphins, one of the largest puffin populations in Europe, seals, rare birds ... ”
John O’Groats gets its name from Jan de Groote, a Dutch entrepreneur, who arrived here in 1496. He was the first person to set up a ferry to Orkney and charged a “groat”, the traditional name of a long-defunct coin.
According to legend, the Earl of Caithness granted him enough land on which to build a home in return for three measures of malt whisky. Up went an eight-sided house for his eight quarrelling sons, so that each of them could enter by his own door. The house no longer exists but the design is echoed in the octagonal tower of what is now the Inn at John O’Groats.
I learn about this history aboard a 12-seater inflatable speedboat – on one of the trips run by Natural Retreats, which offers guests a concierge service that arranges activities including clay-pigeon shooting, scuba diving, deep sea fishing, whisky tasting and horse riding.
On the water we travel alongside rugged, towering cliffs, occasionally reaching exhilarating speeds of 40mph. It’s the most spectacular stretch of British coast I’ve seen. We slow down as we pass, up close, the hulking sea stacks at Duncansby Head, where the Pentland Firth meets the North Sea. “The stacks are 6,000 years old,” says Willy Miller, our skipper for the day.
Miller stops the boat in a patch of clear water, killing the engine, and we gently float into a deep gorge. The narrow inlets in the face of the cliffs are, says Miller, “formed by sea eating away at rock”. We listen in silence to the birds circling overhead and look at the rock walls, coloured purple at the bottom and green at the top.
We spot the Inn at John O’Groats – you can’t miss the coloured huts, even from far out at sea. Such major development has, perhaps inevitably, earned mixed reactions among the locals. Earlier in the day, a local resident told me that the huts were too bright. “They’re a blot on an otherwise barren landscape,” he said. “But we can’t complain too much. Change doesn’t come here often.”
The hotel may be highly visible, but, on our trip, the whales and dolphins are not. Still, there are hundreds of seals sunbathing on rocks close to the shore, kittiwake chicks scattered between the tops of the cliffs, and gannets flying alongside the boat.
In the afternoon, we board a helicopter to visit Stroma, a small uninhabited island (unless you count the sheep). We soar above castles, churches, stone ruins, and empty green field after empty green field. We pass miles of unspoilt coast, jagged cliffs, shell beaches and white sand. From up here, the end of the world looks pretty good.
John Sunyer was a guest of Natural Retreats (www.naturalretreats.co.uk) and easyJet (www.easyjet.com). One bedroom apartments cost from £90 per night, two bedroom apartments from £200. EasyJet flights from London Gatwick to Inverness, a 2½-hour drive from John O’Groats, from £60 return
This article has been amended since publication