Saturday, 20 August 2016

On my current location in Heathrow

I was about to write an entry about my adventures between Inverness and my current location (Heathrow, Terminal 5) but my iPhone says I should mosey to the gate. So the short version will suffice. No issues getting back to Didcot. Collin, Elly, Bella and Bridie were glad to see me but Caddy was too cool to show much emotion. I bought too many books in Oxford. And I don't enjoy going to airports.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

On heading South

The day started with an encounter with an older Australian couple in the process of assembling their touring bikes in the parking lot of the hotel. It wasn't clear how they had got to John O'Groats with bikes still in their shipping boxes but they had and I was offered one. They were about to do a reverse LEJOG, which I guess should be expected from antipodeans with reversed brakes on their bikes (that is the rear brake was controlled by the left hand brake lever). ;-)

At breakfast, I sat with Michael, a Canadian who just complete a LEJOG in about two and a half weeks. He commented that the record for a LEJOG was something like 48 hours, but he couldn't ride that fast. I asked him if he would want to go that fast. He paused then chuckled to say no. He had a generally negative take on British drivers vis-à-vis cyclists. Ones in the South of England seem to have been quite unpleasant.

I set off at a time which got me to the Castle of Mey too early to enter which was just as well as I was able to use the time to make a side trip to Dunnet Head the most Northerly part of the Island of Great Britain. This headland features a sea cliff home to a wide assortment of seabirds: kittiwakes, guillemots, gannets, fulmars, puffins, razorbills and of course seagulls. I have no clear picture of which I saw flying around. I don't think I saw members of the auk family (puffins, guillemots and razorbills).

I got back to Thurso in time for a quick lunch. I then got to the station, changed into civvies, and waited only a few minutes for my two coach train to arrive.

So now I am on the train to Inverness looking at the scenery. Wide blanket bog has given way to hills/mountains. In not too long, the train passes by Lairg!

Almost strange to see trees again!

On first, off last

The winds gods giveth, and the wind gods taketh away. The westerlies of my first day in the Orkneys were replaced by winds out of the South East or the South-South East. This was more or less exactly the least useful direction for me. My plan for Monday was to go to the Broch of Gurness followed by the Brough of Birsay, then loop back via the Stones of Stenness. This meant a return against the wind which is the least desirable situation.

I did it anyway. The Broch of Gurness while not as high as the one on Lewis, was interesting because of the collection of surrounding buildings and its location guarding a strait which would have been a dandy place to keep an eye on incoming ships and extract a tax or two. The Brough of Birsay is a tidal island which housed first a Pictish settlement followed by a Viking one and then a monastery which may or may not have been connected to St Magnus. Nearby was the ruins of a late 16th Century palace built by Lord Patrick Stewart, a right royal bastard. More on him later.

As I began to head for Kirkwall, I stopped at a brewery and then a water powered grain mill. Both of these added to my load. The mill had two or three old millstones in the yard outside, so I asked the person showing me around how quickly the stones wore out. The answer was very slowly. One of the millstones in use dated back to the 19th century!

While the wind was contrary, the weather wasn't. The Sun came out from behind the clouds and stayed visible. I actually had to apply sunscreen. I even wore a biking jersey that wasn't Merino!

Going back to Kirkwall was the expected chore, however it was broken by a few incidents. Nearing the Ness of Brodgar, I noticed a car behind me and as I was near a good place to pull over, I did so and turned to wave the driver on. (Incidentally, the drivers are very polite and have never honked at me, except once and that was a double toot as the car was passing saying "Thank you, mate!" I have tried to return the courtesy.) In this instance, the woman driver didn't advance as she was waiting for a blockage further on to resolve itself. More on that later.

I stopped to give the Ness of Brogar another look. This time, the archaeologists were hard at work with trowels, notebooks and survey equipment that used lasers. I was tempted to ask if they could use a volunteer the next morning.

I then stopped at the Stones of Stenness and tried to put myself in the mindset of the builders. This was tricky as a pair of teenage brothers were wrestling nearby.

I was so tired as I got back to Kirkwell, I went straight to a pub for supper. As it was, I had been holding up traffic as I rode. I was, however, doing a better job of letting cars by than one or two of the other cyclists I saw going the way. I was not the only cyclist or cycle-tourist around.

Coming into the hostel, I stopped by reception to ask about leaving bags after I checked out the next morning for a few hours. The young woman behind the desk assured me that there would be no problem. She then said she had seen me on the road! It turned out she had been the driver I had tried to wave her past near the Ness of Brodgar!

At breakfast the next morning, I noticed a woman of about my own age sitting at a table industriously poking holes in a pile of Ziplock baggies marked with a felt tipped pen. I asked if they were samples which wasn't quite the right word  but that is the consequence of having a geologist for a dad. They were in fact artifact bags for an archaeological dig. Which dig? Ness of Brodgar. I expressed my envy of her!

I spent the morning in Kirkwall visiting the St Magnus Cathedral, the ruins of the Earl's and Bishop's palace.

The Earl in question was the previously mentioned Patrick Stewart, son of Robert Stewart bastard son of James V. Patrick Stewart ruled the Orkneys and the Shetlands harshly and badly generating numerous complaints from his use of kidnapping, extortion, torture and the like. It was not until he rebelled that his cousin, James VI had him and his son arrested, tried and put to death. As I said  a right royal bastard. He did have enough taste to put up a nice house, now ruined.

After doing the Kirkwall museum, I returned to the Hostel, retrieved my bags and set off for Burwick and my ferry for John O'Groats. I stopped for an audio-visual tour of the Highland Park distillery (which came with a wee dram). From then on it was a long, slightly grim plod against the wind and more hills than seemed strictly necessary. Neither the hills nor the wind was bad on their own, but together, they were a nasty combination.

I went over four causeways between islands that Churchill had ordered built to help keep submarines out of Scapa Flow. These Churchill Barriers were completed too late to be of much use in their designed function.

Part of the workforce consisted of Italian prisoners of war, whom it seems were given considerably leeway, doubtlessly because one of worst things the British could do to them was to leave them in the Orkneys! ;-)  Anyway, the British allowed them to convert two Nissen huts into a chapel, now called the Italian Chapel and like the Churchill Barriers, completed too late!

I arrived at the ferry terminal at about 4:30 for my 5:15 ferry. There was nobody around. After maybe ten minutes, a man showed up and sat on the pier waiting. The ferry arrived and two passengers got off with their bikes. I presented my e-ticket and oversaw Leonardo being hauled on board and lashed securely. I made my way to the boat deck and asked a crew member rather facetiously: "Is ferry always this popular?" It turned out that far from me being the only passenger, they were expecting about two hundred passengers in four coach loads! The reason there were only two passengers on the previous run was that it had been an informal run intended to re-position the ferry. The coaches arrived on schedule and disgorged their contents. The ferry was quite full and when we got to John O'Groats, I had to wait until they got off before manhandling Leonardo up the gangplank. First on, last off.

Monday, 15 August 2016

On the long version of how yesterday went

I apologize for the curtailed entry yesterday but both the iPhone and myself ran out of juice.

Mainland, the largest island of the Orkneys, features low, gentle hills and good roads. The wind was out of the West and as Stromness is at the Western end of Mainland, by dint of clever navigation, I was able to avoid riding into it for all but a few short bits. In addition, no rain fell. Thus a pretty good situation for biking.

En route to Skara Brae, I saw an open topped double decker bus go by and was struck by the thought "What idiot would have a double decker bus in the Orkney? And who want to ride in it?" I made Skara Brae in time for lunch of locally made and sourced food in its tearoom. I shared a table with an older couple from Portsmouth who were up on a cruise ship and who had ridden from Kirkwall to Skara Brae in the open topped bus! It turned out that the bus they had been supposed to take had broken down.

Skara Brae is a collection of stone houses built out of the local sandstone which is fairly easily quarried into rectangular blocks owing to its particular geology. They are amazingly well built even after 5000 years. No mortar, they were drystone constructions and set into the earth and linked by a central, covered passageway. The stone was also used to make furniture such as beds and dressers. Two of the houses were built before the others and more remains of the earlier phase are thought to be beneath the later phase buildings.

What blew my mind was the almost casual note that these buildings had been dug into a large midden (a waste dump) of an earlier occupational group! This sent the prehistory into a very strange place in my mind.

I almost couldn't cope with the hopelessly modern (17th to 20th century) Skail House a few hundred meters away. I therefore went back to Skara Brae for another look. Still mind boggling.

I then set off to the Ring of Brodgar, set on spit of land between Loch Harray and Loch Stenness. These stones were impressive as one of the larger stone circles in the British Isles, though they showed the effects of the weather including lightning damage. The circle was roughly contemporary with Skara Brae. A very little further was the Ness of Brodgar. This is an ongoing archeological dig of a village of the same approximate vintage as Skara Brae only seemingly several times larger. They are still at work and the guide said there is enough material to keep working for a lifetime. Part of me wants to come back in twenty years to see what more they have found. The site is only excavated for about eight weeks of the year. For the rest of the time, it is covered with tarpaulins weighted down with "Neolithic tires" sourced from the garages of the Orkneys who are only too pleased to get rid of them so easily.

I had to get to Maes Howe by four, so I skipped the related Standing Stones of Stenness. I am hoping stop by later.

Maes Howe is a chambered tomb which is currently reached by the entrance the builders intended which is a long low passageway lined with long slabs of rock weighing at roughly ten tons. There is a one ton "door" rock which rests on a pivot. The guide said that a retired guide told him that she used to go in as a child and push the rock closed!

The main chamber is about fifteen feet square. It has three small chambers off of it. The walls and the original ceiling are the usual Orkney sandstone laid very carefully and at height are positioned inwards akin to an igloo. The corners were formed by four re-purposed standing stones. The entrance tunnel was align so the dawn light of the first day of winter shines down it from over the top of the largest hill in the Orkneys and a standing stone located hundreds of yards away! After many years of use, the access tunnel was blocked off with large stones. The next recorded entry was that of the Norse who dug a hole in the top in a quest for treasure. They were disappointed and left runic graffiti to this effect. The roof was replaced in Victorian times.

The combined effect of all these sites, approximately from the era of 3000 BC, makes me think wistfully about changing careers, becoming an archeologist and moving to Orkney. What we don't know about these people would fill a library. What we do know is that they must have had serious building skills including the logistical element so often overlooked. They have caught my imagination.

With the Westerly wind, getting to Kirkwall was easy. After getting to my hostel and attending to various needs, I went down to the harbour front for supper. There were three steam trucks or traction engines smoking away. They had obviously been a part of the Vintage Rally. I later saw then going off into the distance in the direction of Stromness. I couldn't help but wonder about the logistics of getting them on and off ferries given modern safety regulations.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

On the short version of how my day went

The day started rather like how I slept: badly. I had carefully arranged my clobber to permit a quick and discreet getaway but then my bright yellow rain jacket was nowhere to be seen. Thankfully a scene was avoided when I checked the kitchen area where I made my previous post.

Off to Scabster to catch the ferry. It arrived to disgorge (among other things) an assortment of traveling fair rides. It seems I missed the Orkney county fair by one day. What I didn't entirely miss was the Orkney classic vehicle rally. I was the first vehicle to board. The next was a Norton motorcycle, which dated from at least before 1960. A car from about 1930 was also on board.

I made a bee line for the breakfast buffet where I loaded my plate with more than my "proper" share of sautéed mushrooms. I had to wait for the buffet to open and while waiting I chatted with a Swiss woman up on a rail pass.

The crossing was marred by the heavy motion of the ship. Rather than annotate the map I'd torn from a tourist brochure, I gazed out at the horizon in an effort to avoid seasickness. Hoy heaved into view. Our passage took in the Old Man of Hoy, a particularly spectacular sea stack.

Stromness is a surprising town. None were more surprised than the fleet of BMW motorcycle riders (twenty plus) when the Norton went by. One of the surprises is that they let vehicles near the ferry terminal. I obviously made a wrong turn leaving the terminal, but the street I was on was paved with actual paving stones! In fact, I was surprised cars were allowed on it let alone going in both directions. As I was leaving Stromness, I had the idea of stopping at a gas station to get a proper map of the Orkneys. This was promptly cut down to a more convenient size. (Maps of islands lend themselves to this.)

It was after this that things kept getting better. A whole lot better. However, I am too tired right now to go into details. Short version: my god, those Neolithics knew how to build.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

On an indulgent end to a surprisingly tough day.

My stretch goal for today had been to drop most of my clobber at my hostel in Thurso and make a dash for Dunnet Head in order to say I'd been to the most Northerly point of the Island of Britain and therefore save time later.  This seemed feasible given a nominal distance of 44 miles to Thurso and a forecast tailwind. I packed accordingly.

Unfortunately, the road was hillier than expected. Furthermore, as my breakfast had been on the light side, when I got to Bettyhill, I was in the mood for an elevenses at the Bettyhill Café. It wasn't open until 5 PM on Saturday. This threw me for loop. I ended up going to the nearby museum which was open then going back about a mile to find a scanty lunch.

The road took in a lot of up and down surrounded by blooming heather. Also by a surprising number of sports cars. Lotuses, Miatas, Ferraris, Porsches and others. I one point I wondered if I had wandered into a Top Gear shoot or something similar. The weather was drier and I made a number of sartorial alterations to find the optimum moisture management.

I had shared a dorm room with a young Italian. He seems to be hitchhiking as I passed once walking along the road then again several miles later!

At some point a bit before Reay, the land settled down and spread out allowing for more sustained pedaling and some serious "Wee!-ing". In Reay, stopped for a snackrel at a shop. The young lady till asked a few basic questions about where I was going. (She must have seen hundreds or thousands of LEJOGgers and their ilk.) My responses were slow to the point that I realized I had a degree of brain freeze. I decided I would put a buff on my noggin to keep the little grey cells warm.

After Reay, the NCN left the main road partly to avoid the mothballed Doune Reay nuclear power plant. (Elly's brother Ben doubtless has an opinion about it.)  The land became "tidy British agricultural" (as opposed to "rough sheep pasture"). Thurso came up and I found my hostel, but I wasn't about to go to Dunnet Head. I felt pooped. Through a certain effort of will, after dumping clobber at the hostel and changing my socks, I visited the excellent museum. Afterwards, I made a trip to the ferry terminal in Scrabster (circa two miles away) to get some particulars about taking the ferry on the morrow. Only then did I go back to the hostel and shower.

The hostel is opposite a fish and chips shop that advertises "fresh caught Thurso haggis". It wasn't where I had supper but would have better suited the whiny bloke at Le Bistro where I did have supper. However, I did patronize it, as I had a post-prandial battered and deep-fried Snickers Bar there. It hit a number of needs.

Bed time.

Friday, 12 August 2016

On side winds

The advertised distance between Lairg and Tongue was 62 km so I set off with less than any sort of hurry. In fact, I rode back about a mile to the Ferrycroft Interpretive Centre to delay my departure from Lairg. It was only moderately interesting.

The weather was quite frustrating today with a crosswind that alternatively helped and hindered. In truth, I think the wind was more assist than hindrance. With the wind came weather in great variety: rain, sun and cloud all competed but the most common was a very fine and thin rain that only barely required rain gear.

In addition, the landscape was relatively devoid of landmarks from which I could locate my position with any certainty. I rolled through pasture, moor, forestry commission forests and the stumps there of until I came to the hamlet of Crask.

Crask consists of the Crask Inn and one other house, currently for sale. It is surrounded by moorland and is off the electrical grid and so relies on its own generator and batteries. They applied to get permission to install a wind generator but were turned down by the planning committee.

I had seen another cyclist ahead of me. When I went into the Inn, the proprietor asked me if I had gone past and come back. No, that was a different solo cyclist.

I had lunch there in the company of the owner and an assortment of border collies, one of whom placed a tennis ball on my table and tried to eye me into throwing it for him. I tried to tell him that the health board wouldn't stand for it but he wouldn't listen.

About halfway through lunch, an Englishman from Portsmouth in his twenties came in and announced to the owner that he had rented a house nearby for his gap year and would therefore start to be regular. This led to a discussion about how communion services were held in the inn about once a month. It seemed quite baroque. I chatted a bit with the Englishman and asked him to try not to go insane during the winter! ;-)

The next section went by in a blur as the wind and gravity were with me. The road went down along a valley in an orgy of whee marred only by the necessities of single track road.

The final section went along shore of Loch Loyal. The low clouds would sometimes part to reveal some of the mountains it was concealing. The teasers.

Decent day all told.