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End of the road for 'John O'Grotty'

30 July 09 11:36 GMT

Tourists have been going to John O'Groats since the 1500s, when Dutchman Jan De Groot started a ferry service across the Pentland Firth to Orkney.

But in recent years the town has had a terrible reputation, with one major guide book describing it as "a seedy little tourist trap."

Highlands and Islands Enterprise has been asking members of the public how the site should be transformed.

As that consultation comes to an end, BBC reporter Huw Williams reports from the top right hand corner of the Scottish mainland.

"I couldn't quite believe my eyes.

Two lads, pushing fridges, coming towards me on the A9. They were heading south, as I travelled north.

I had to find out more, so I parked by the side of the road and flagged them down.

Turns out they were James Miller and Marcus Dean.

Inspired by comedian Tony Hawks, who walked round Ireland with a fridge, they'd decided to take their own two fridges on a stroll from John O'Groats to Land's End.

On the way, they hope to raise £5,000 for the Alzheimer's Society.

They want to finish their bizarre mission by December, because their parents have told them they have to be home for Christmas.

"John O'Groats to Lands End, or the other way round, is THE ultimate in Britain," Marcus told me.

"It's the furthest you can do, without doing the entire coastal route," he added.

So John O'Groats will always be special, just because of where it is.

But their impressions of the place itself weren't great.

"It's all aimed at tourists, so it's a rip-off, and a bit tacky," James said.

"As an example, " he added, "in the John O'Groats cafe a can of Irn Bru is £1.20. But just out of the town, in the post office, an Irn Bru is 39p."

Marcus agreed: "All there is really is a roundabout, a sign post, and a few tourist shops."

In recent years critics, have agreed that John O'Groats is bleak and tatty.

The recent closure of the hotel on the site hasn't helped.

As the building declines into dereliction, it can make the whole place feel as though it's seen better days.

However, not everyone agrees with that assessment.

'Fantastic views'

Jane Wilson, from Dumbarton, told me: "It could probably do with a few more things, like a park for the kids to play in.

"But, saying that, we've had a great day. We've thoroughly enjoyed it."

David Cathcart, who was visiting from Glasgow, added: "I came last year, and loved it. I like the scenery of Scotland, rather than going abroad. So long as we get the weather, it's great. They could do with some more shops, and more things to do here. But that's all I'd change."

But Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) want the area to be transformed.

Carol Gunn, from HIE's Thurso office, said: "John O'Groats is much more than just a car park. We're overlooking the Pentland Firth, with fantastic views over Stroma and Orkney.

"To the east we've got the late Queen Mother's holiday home at the Castle of Mey, and locally there are fantastic sea bird colonies, and great coastal walks. The sea stacks at Duncansby are probably the best in the whole of the UK."

But if everything is so wonderful, why the consultation on how to make it better?

"We need to keep moving forward, to meet the needs of the modern-day discerning traveller," Ms Gunn explained.

"What we're doing just now is developing a master plan, and we're in a period of consultation which closes this week.

"We'd urge anybody who has an interest to come forward. We're keen to get as many views as possible."

As part of that exercise, HIE drafted in consultants GVA Grimley to write a report about what John O'Groats could be like.

They don't want to pre-empt the findings of the research, which is due to be published in a couple of month's time.

But they do say that John O'Groats is a unique kind of tourist destination - it doesn't need to advertise in order to get people to visit.

They will come anyway, whether it's by bike, pushing a fridge, in a tourist coach, on pogo sticks, in a steam powered car, on a tractor or in one of the many European registered cars and camper vans you see up and down the A9.

But, they say, what John O'Groats needs to do is to offer more so visitors spend more time - and more money - in the area, not just stay long enough to take a few photographs and buy some tartan-themed souvenirs.


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