Sunday, 16 September 2018

On twin railway stations

Not for the first time, my bike travels in the UK have taken me to the St Pancras YHA which is kitty corner to St Pancras Railway Station. In turn the latter is across a side street from King's Cross Railway Station.  The rationale for having two major railway stations one beside the other goes back to the late 19th century.

In the second half of the 20th century, St-Pancras was considered redundant by British Rail. It was allowed to run down, in favour of King's Cross. In his book, The Long, Dark Teatime of the Soul, Douglas Adams describes it as deary, but beautiful place for lost souls, including minor Norse deities. It was also an entry point to Valhalla. Even into the 21st Century it was decaying. However, it was revived by being selected to be the endpoint of Eurostar and thus was re-baptised St-Pancras International. The choice of St Pancras eludes me, as I would have thought one of the Southern railway stations. Victoria or Waterloo would seem more logical. However, the upshot is that St Pancras was given not only a new lease on life, but also a significant amount of sprucing up, to the point that it now seems to be the posh railway station in London. It feels posher than the other ones I have visited in the last year (Paddington, Euston, King's Cross, Marylebone and Victoria.) This may be partly connected to the attached St Pancras Hotel which among the cars parked outside was a McLaren sportscar.

King's Cross Railway Station did not escape notoriety in late 20th literature either. If anything, it was more subject to it to the point that there is a shop dedicated to the mythical platform 9 3/4 as mentioned in the Harry Potter books. There is a luggage trolley embedded in the wall for tourist to be photographed with. Long lineups form for such devotees. I was not among them. I did buy a postcard for Alisa, as she is a devotee of Harry Potter.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

On wheels, canals, tunnels and Kelpies

On the train to Edinburgh, I dug out my cycling map of the area as I had the plan of leaving the bulk of my clobber at the train station before catching a train to Falkirk as it was a weekday and I could not expect Donald or Dominique would take time off to greet me. (I would be staying with them.) Looking at the map and listening to routine announcements, I realized that the train I was on would stop in Falkirk. I checked with a member of the train staff about the logistics of getting off the train in Falkirk. The hitch was that the platform in Falkirk was too short, so would have get the bike out of the bike space and put it in the forward vestibule of coach F for Foxtrot while the train was stopped in Stirling. This I did but it was stressful to run back and forth on the platform. 

From the station in Falkirk, I found the Forth and Clyde Canal and followed it west to the Falkirk Wheel. It raises boats from the level of the Forth and Clyde Canal to that of the Union Canal. It is a brilliantly simple exercise in engineering, modern art and tourism. All three elements are at play at multiple levels. 

It is also located at part of the Antonine Wall. Constructed on the orders of Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, it was an earthen version of the more famous Hadrian’s Wall. However, for various reasons, it was abandoned in a favour of the more southerly location. Unfortunately, it was poorly signed so I wound up following the new Interchange Canal between the Forth and Clyde and the Union canals through Scotland’s second canal tunnel. At the other end, I turned East on the Union Canal’s towpath, in search of the Antonine Wall site which my maps said was close but which Google Maps couldn’t locate. I went through the first Scottish canal tunnel which a panel cheerfully described as having been worked on by Burke and Hare before they started killing people for the anatomists. The towpath was narrow enough and slippery enough that I walked the bike through.

Coming out the other side, I deduced I had missed the Antonine Wall, so I headed towards the town centre for lunch. Afterwards, I headed back towards the Wheel by road and managed to find the site. The wall and ditch isn’t hugely impressive except for the fact that it is there after nearly two thousand years. Even today, in its present, eroded form, it would slow down a horde of ravening Picts, giving the Roman Legion a better chance. Also, the fact the Romans could build it probably suggested to the wiser Picts that the Romans had a superior power of organisation.

I took the F&C canal East to the Kelpies. These massive horses’ heads are of a piece with the Falkirk wheel in their being Millennium projects and being clad in stainless steel. The Kelpies differ from the Wheel in that they don’t have an inherent practical function.

I caught a train into Edinburgh. It was still too early to get to Donald Dominique’s, so I paid a visit to Cadenhead's Whiskey Shop. There were a number of people there. While trying to make up my mind about what to buy, I overheard a clerk explaining to an American couple that Campbeltown was a well regarded whisky region with three distilleries. I couldn’t resist voicing the observation: “Yes, and two of them are owned by the same company that owns this place! But they make very good whisky!”

After some shopping both there and elsewhere, it was time to head over to the New Town to Donald and Dominique’s house. As luck would have it, Donald and their youngest daughter were just getting out of cab as I arrived. I was made at home in their gorgeous Georgian home. I think the room they put me in has half the floor space of my condo and with its high ceilings, the same volume! It is a grand residence. 

Today, I slept in, had breakfast and lazed until a little after noon when I bid my farewells and cranked up and over to Waverley Station to catch a fast train to London. As luck would have it, my seat was in coach F for Foxtrot in the parlance of LNER. As well, I had window looking East, so had the chance to replay in reverse my trip prior to Edinburgh.

I had supper tonight in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub, as rebuilt in 1667. It has frequently by Charles Dickens, Dr. Johnson and Charles II if memory serves. And of course countless others. I ended up in a Gothic vaulted undercroft adjacent to its Wine Cellar Bar room. It was packed, as might be expected on a nice evening on a Saturday night on the first of September.

Friday, 31 August 2018

On travels by ferry and train

After supper in the Ferry Inn in Stromness, a chance remark about the difference between a ketch and a yawl resulted in me chatting with a Brit living in Wales with the improbable name Vasco (he was half Portuguese) and an American woman named Sofia (a cycle-tourist). She was involved in education in San Francisco. This is relevant as the conversation drifted on to the topic of second or dual language education in schools. The three of us each had differing experiences on the subject. In some way, I had the broadest knowledge having experienced the school system in Quebec and California. She was amused by my account of how the vice-principal at La Cumbré Junior High warned me that as a non-Latino, I would in the minority. This provoked giggles from my mother and I, as an anglophone, I had been a minority student for the previous six years.

The next morning, I caught the ferry to Thurso. I realized that the jaunt  to the Orkneys had been poorly planned as it was far too short. Next time, I should plan on at least a week! 

The last vehicle off the ferry was a Porsche Convertible that was on a mission to visit all the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) stations in as short a time as possible.

The day was like the one before with bright sunshine, wind and light rain that came in short bouts. There was a distinct swell on the sea which allowed me to wonder at how the seabirds glided just inches above the rising and falling water. I caught sight of a pod of dolphins which I called out to the other people in the quiet lounge. (I was technically breaking the rules but as the response from the patrons was a genuine “thank you for letting us know”, I think that I was justified.) I say dolphin in the sense that they were members of the dolphin family, but I am not sure which species, as we didn’t get that long a look at them. I saw one leap out of the water and my memory was that it was largely black with a blunt head. That would make it a pilot whale. However, it was silhouetted against a bright, sun reflecting sea so I may be mistaken. Some else said they were common dolphins.

In theory, I had 33 minutes to get from the ferry terminal to the train station. Google Maps said it would take 15 minutes. However, both are not guaranteed owing to the vagaries of wind, weather and tide, the ferry being particularly subject to both. I was therefore anxious to make a rapid departure from the ferry. Luckily, the bike parking spot was nearest to the exit doors the drill was bikes get off first. The only downside of this was that I didn’t have time to gawk at what I think were a pair of Alfa Romeo Montreals, a type of car designed in response to Expo 67. Once off the ferry, I cranked half to the train station which despite a wrong turn, I got to in...fifteen minutes! I could have stopped in the town centre of Thurso to buy a sandwich for lunch.

As it was, I lunched on Orkney cheddar and oatcakes as North East Scotland went by. The grey seals were again on their beach, which contrary to a previous entry was on Cromarty Firth but somewhat further North. (I will correct the error at a later date.)

I caught the train to Edinburgh this morning. I was disconcerted to see a party of young men in Hawaiian shirts sitting a table with a case of Corona and an excessive number bottles of spirits of a flashy nature. This included a round tray box full of miniature bottles of assorted vodka shooters. They also had a bottle of Crystal Skull vodka. Despite the train having left at 7:55 AM, they started in on the drinking. I guessed they were a stag party. They were already sufficiently noisy to the point that not only that I didn’t ask if they knew that Crystal Skull is a joint venture involving both Dan Ackryod and the Newfoundland Liquor Commission but I decided to find a seat in another coach, most notably the quiet coach which also has the benefit of being closer to the bike. I inquired with a crew member about the rules about bringing your own booze on board. Unlike Via Rail, there is no restrictions beyond responsible behaviour.

Crossing through the mountains was gorgeous with just the right combination of sun and mist. As well, there were familiar sights from when I biked along this route on an earlier trip. (The railway, the motorway and NCN route 7 all follow the same path.) One sight was the Ruthven Barracks. If I remember correctly, my best friend James is connected with the Ruthven family.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

On eagles ancient and new

I caught the early passenger ferry from John O’Groats to Burwick. The crossing was witnessed by some grey seals. It involved not getting run down by the Amundsen Spirit, 66 thousand ton crude oil tanker. 

From Burwick,  it was a quick ride to the Tomb of the Eagles. This was a chambered tomb from the Skara Brae culture and thus roughly 5000 years old. Its’ name comes from the number of eagle bones found in it. The culture appears to have practiced what is sometimes termed sky burial at first (or leaving the bodies out for birds to eat) followed by actual burial once the bones were picked clean. It had been discovered by a local farmer and amateur archeologist. The place was privately run, so we were allowed and encouraged to handle some of the artifacts! One of these was a toe bone from a white-tailed eagle (or haliaeetus albicilla or sea-eagle).

There was also the Burnt Mound which consisted of the remains of a Bronze Age building of uncertain function, but was probably something akin to a sauna or sweat lodge in my opinion. (The description of why is too long and boring.) Next to it was a large midden that consisted heavily of peat ash.

Next it was a shed which had started life as a German WWII ambulance before being converted into a mobile home and used on a trip around the Sahara! It eventually wound up being used as a shed by the person discovered the place!

The Tomb of the Eagles was located on a cliff top overlooking the coast. Walking back along the cliff top path, I passed a cove cut into the cliffs. I saw at least four grey seals floating in the water.

From there, I had a short ride to the Tomb of the Otters. This was identified as interesting in 2010. Some of the stones had been seen when the mound they were part of had been removed to make a car park for a restaurant. The owner had asked archeologists if the stones were significant and had been told no. Several years later, he investigated by himself by inserting a camera. There was a skull in evidence which resulted in a “I told you so.” The Tomb has only been partially excavated but is already proving unusual as the entrance way faces North, rather than South as is more common for such tombs. Also, it is partially excavated from the bedrock. Rather than being “buried in the sky”, the bodies were left underground to be eaten by otters as evidenced by old otter scat, hence the name. The young and somewhat uncertain man presenting the background and some artifacts, told the party (three young Americans and myself that DNA found in the teeth was being analyzed by specialists in ancient human DNA in Copenhagen. They are due to present their results next year. As we were being educated, an older man was bringing in supplies for the bistro. He overheard me comment that the experts likely had the data by now and were likely figuring out what it meant. He took exception to this and said they were world renowned experts so they did not need “to figure things out.” It turned out that he was Hamish, the man who made the discovery! I must confess, I found him somewhat limited in the processes of academia. While the experts can say that the people were of X genetic stock and are fairly closely related to this group of modern Europeans, those results are not the be-all and end-all of the the process. Were I involved, I would want to think about what the data implies. For example, if the genetic analysis suggested a relationship with ancient Egyptians, there would be one hell of a need to first double check the results and second, come up with a theory or two. On the other hand, if it turns out they were Basque, a phone call to warn the Home Office about potential ETA claims to North Sea oil revenues might be in order. ;-)

Anyway, the partially excavated tomb was only large enough for three at a time, and not that comfortably at that. Particularly when thinking about what might lie undiscovered. I was intrigued by the fact that clay had been used as mortar, unlike Skara Bray and Maes Howe. However, my claustrophobia and I were glad to get out.

Still, it was a fascinating tour. 

The bistro was a handy

I made a wind-assisted zoom to the Kirkwall SYHA. I stopped at the 58 8’ fruit winery and rum distillery to sample fruit liqueurs and J. Gow spiced rum. (Captain Gow was an unsuccessful Scottish pirate.) Unfortunately, there wasn’t a bottle worth its duty allowance for sale. Especially the Tattie liqueur. I double checked my Scots with the saleswoman that it was indeed a potato derived drink. I smelt the contents and decided against tasting it.

Possibly on the strength of the spirits confused, after changing at the youth hostel, I set off on quest to procure an Orkaidian flag. (Picture a Scandinavian flage where the background is red and the cross is blue with a yellow surround.) I was very nearly overly successful. I came upon a bike store (and Warhammer game outlet) that I visited the last time I was here. In the window was a biking jersey patterned after the Orkney flag. It met my high-viz requirements. Had there been any in stock in my size, I would have bought one. Unfortunately, all they had was XXXL. I am not that fat. I did find a flag.

Down on the waterfront, I moseyed around before entering the premises of Kirkjuvag, a local gin distillery (gin is having a renaissance in the UK. Also, Kirkjuvag is the Norse for Kirkwall.) I tried their gin with tonic as it was cocktail hour. While I sipped, a pair of New Zealanders came in with a lot of clobber. Closer examination revealed part of it to be diving gear. We chatted and it emerged they had been wreck diving in Scapa Flow. They were killing time before their ferry to the Shetlands. Eventually, the staff said that they would be closing in a few minutes. (It was a store, not a pub after all.) We finished our drinks and left.

I wandered about cross-checking various restaurant menus with my guidebook and tastes. I settle on the Bothy Bar which is part of the Albert Hotel on the grounds they served lamb which is strangely hard to find outside an Indian restaurant. As luck would have it, the Kiwis came in as well!

After supper, I retired to the Hostel and finished reading the Orkneyinga Saga about the earls of Orkney. This proved relevant.

This morning, I set off for Houton in order to catch a ferry to the island of Hoy. I missed one ferry by about ten minutes, so I had time to go to a museum about the Saga in Ophir. It was built there as it was the site of one episode of the saga when during a feast one Svein got upset that another Svein’s drinking horn was smaller than his and therefore it gave him an unfair advantage in the competitive drinking that was a feature of Norse feasts. This resulted in hurt feelings and later a death. Bear in mind that these are Christian Norsemen! Behind the museum there was the ruins of a round church and the drinking hall. Or at least what is thought to be the hall. However, the ruins of the hall seemed far too small to have been the scene of the events. There was also the remains of a small round church.

The weather was bright and windy. Alas, it was blowing in the wrong direction. It rained from time to time but only briefly and lightly. As I could see a long way, I knew not only that the rain was coming but also it would only be a short shower.

When the ferry got back, I was the first to get on. The next was a dump truck with a load of gravel. That was it! The ferry had space for many more but evidently, this wasn’t a popular sailing.
Hoy is the Norse word for High. So the Island of Hoy is named after its high hills, the highest in the Orkneys. It is distinctly hilly coming close to mountainous. Certainly quite steep, with cliffs in evidence.

It was also home of the museum dealing with the history of Scapa Flow as a naval base. Unfortunately, the museum was closed for renovations and the temporary exhibition in a nearby hotel wasn’t as deep as I would have hoped. 

After lunch at Emily’s Tearoom, populated by fit retirees in trekking gear, I headed towards the North End of the Island, alternately helped and hindered by the wind. There was a feeling that often get in rural Scotland of being caught being between the old and the new. A landscape that feels primitive yet has been lived in for millennia. Maybe that was Diana Gabaldon was tapping into when she started Outlander, being in both the past present. The feeling was reinforced by the sight of an old telegraph pole which someone had top with an orange traffic cone.

At a col, there was a lonely grave and plaque explaining its meaning. In the 1770s, a young woman had committed suicide. As this was a sin at the time, she was buried in an unmarked grave, in un-sanctified ground at the border of two parishes. Her coffin and well preserved body was found by accident by peat cutters in the 1930s. After a time, she was given a proper burial and a tombstone. 

A little before the ferry dock, I turned up a valley to reach the Dwarfie Stane parking lot where the RSPB has set up an eagle watch. station. White-tailed eagles have this year hatched and fledged their first chicks on the island in over 140 years. They very happy about this, but want to make damn sure some wanker doesn’t muck things up. So, they have someone keeping an eye on the eagles. I am not sure if she was a volunteer or was paid but there was a young woman with two spotting scopes on tripods there. In addition to keeping track of the eagles activities, she was there to educate the public, not to mention point out where the eagles actually were. The nesting site was at the top of a cliff quite a distance away on the other side of the valley. When the juveniles were in flight, they could easily be mistaken for crows. When perched, they tended to blend in with the vegetation, even when using the spotting scopes. The wing tags the RSPB had fitted on them helped make them more obvious.

Really fun to see. I feel very lucky, nay, privileged.

Monday, 27 August 2018

On a scenic train ride and proper French

The train North from Inverness went faster than the actual time it took. There was plenty of scenery to gaze at as well as wildlife. Somewhere along the coast the track came close enough to a beach to disturb a considerable number of grey seals who were sunbathing. They stampeded into the sea. I am half-convinced I heard their cries of alarm over the sound of the train. Farther North, I saw a red deer and her calf on the moors of Caithness. The train to Wick stops at a junction station, then reverses direction into Thurso. (The train was a diesel multiple unit (or DMU (Budd cars were DMUs)) with cabs at either end of the two car train.) At Thurso, the bulk of the passengers disembarked. One exception was a party of older people who had failed to exit the train in time. I gather they had tried to exit through an inactive door. Despite their pleas, the train departed, a slave to schedule. They remonstrated with a member of the crew who seemed to provide a solution. The train returned to the junction station where the party got off. It was then off to Wick and one extremity of the British rail system. (Actually, it was only a passenger extremity as biking North to John O’Groats, I passed a bit of freight railway some miles to the North.)

The ride to John O’Groats went very well. The open spaces and the sunny weather gave the afternoon a “Bring me that horizon feel”, even if the destination was a definite end point and the distance was only 17 miles.

I guess it was the contrast with the day before. When I stopped in Nairn yesterday for an afternoon snack, an employee of the establishment was have a smoke under an awning out of the rain. When she saw me arriving, she moved a sandwich board so that Leonardo might rest out of the rain. When I came out after a hot chocolate and a chocolate tiffin slice, there was a French-speaking couple examining the menu in the window. They were in front the bike, so I asked them politely to take a step back so I could get my bike. I did it so in French, bien sur. As I had come out of the establishment they were contemplating and I obviously spoke decent French, they questioned me about how good it was. I said I could only say that I had only had “un chocolat chaud et un gâterie.” There was a discussion of “le bon français” term, or more accurately, I apologised for not knowing what the right term was. We agreed that “patisserie” or “gâterie” were acceptable terms for a nonspecific confectionery.

Tomb of the Eagles tomorrow! And the weather looks good, touch wood.

Also, this is post number 700.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

On a wet day with a sad ending

I started somewhat late. Heading West on the NCN 1, I was passed by a great number of Ride the North cyclists, many of whom offered greetings which I was morally obliged to respond to. Getting bored with “Morning” I started changing it up with “Bonjour”, “Buenos dias”, “G’day” and “Howdy.” ;-) I asked a volunteer how many cyclists there were in the event. The answer was upwards of nine hundred.

I stopped in Elgin to visit the ruined cathedral, complete with Scotland’s only octagonal chapter house. This took time, but it did get me out of the stream of cyclists.

It began to rain in earnest a little short of Kinloss. I stopped for lunch at a café at East Grange. It kept raining for the rest of the day. At Nairn, I left the NCN 1 for B9091, which was a simpler and more direct route. It became the B9006. I observed that the number could be flipped and still read the same.

I made Inverness where I had to navigate a new college or university campus whose signs were mostly in Gaelic, mostly to be annoying I suspect. I found the large SYHA hostel and checked into my dorm. I was soon joined by two young Indians and a Belorussian. After a shower, I headed into Inverness to find the Blackfriars Pub has closed. Very disappointing. 

Tomorrow, I catch a train to Wick. The choice is pretty much choice over Thurso so I can say that I have been to one extreme point of the British rail system.

On contrary winds and overly scenic roads

Before I recount today’s events, I will digress on architecture and dogs.

Buildings in Aberdeen were often built of a local granite which has been misused to a certain extent. The stone is a pale grey of no particular distinction. The problem arises from how much the stone is used and how little variation in the stonework there is from building to building. I got the feeling they all used the same sized blocks from the quarry and simply stacked them up. The uniformity was likely part of the plan by the three architects largely responsible for the look of Aberdeen which ends up as cold uniformity and somehow unfinished. I was trying decide how the stone could be made more interesting and came up with building with courses of stone of varied thickness or finishes. That or paint the stone. Something like this was done in the Fraserburgh area.

There was a Doonesbury cartoon in which the defining characteristic of the British gentleman was described as his love of dogs. This has come across on this trip as I have noticed a lot places with signs indicating their dog friendliness. Sometimes, it is expressed as “We are very sorry...” but often it is something setting reasonable conditions such as “on leads, please” or “not on the furniture, please.” I have been impressed by the good behaviour of the dogs and their owners I have passed on bike paths.

Today was sunny and nearly cold much of the time. It was also quite windy from the West. This made for a gruelling ride as I was headed Westwards for much of the day. As well, I rode through some stunning countryside which in Scotland is code for hilly and mountainous. It was particularly draining as I thought I had about a 100 km to go today, and therefore I was bemoaning my slow pace. I arrived in the twin towns of Macduff and Banff. The route between them was beside the sea and as I was on the sidewalk which was on the seaward side, I got some salt spray on me as the waves were high and crashing. 

Banff made me think of the old Magmum P.I. TV show as it turns out that Higgins is the hereditary Baron of Banff. It wasn’t a particularly appealing town, leading me to think that there was the reason he decamped to Hawaii!

I had lunch in bakery in Portsoy. A conversation with one of the staff lead me to double check the distance to my bed. This lead to two things. The first was that I realized that I had overestimated the distance. The second was that I had been lead astray in my identification of just where my bed was. The Brits have an annoying habit of lumping towns and villages together so something might have the address of Village A, Town B, the two being separate by five miles or more. Thus I thought my hotel was in Forchabers rather than Garmouth. Thankfully, I was sufficiently far away that it didn’t matter. 

Thus, I left Portsoy with less of a distance to ride and less of a regard for my planning skills. 

I had rejoined the NCN 1, which I used in when it suited me. In Cullen (home of Cullen Skink), the NCN got on a spectacular railway viaduct. It had three arched sections. I read somewhere that the railway had had to build the viaduct as Lord and Lady Something didn’t want the railway crossing their land.

At Portgordon, I started to see runners wearing numbered bibs. There were volunteers along the way, so I stopped to ask one of them what the event was. It was an ultra-marathon sponsored by a distillery. As we chatted, two competitors ran past. The volunteer called out a friendly “Are we having fun?” To which the answer was “No!”

I should have been faster on the draw, but just past Portgordon, I saw I was on Beaufighter Road. That particular area was remarkably flat. It was also home to young trees and an industrial park. The penny dropped a little later when I saw large expanses of partly overgrown concrete pavement. I was riding across an abandoned WW II airfield. The Bristol Beaufighter was a British aircraft design used for night fighting, ground attack and maritime strike. The young trees indicate nature taking its course and the industrial park suggests it wasn’t wanted or suitable for farming or housing. I latter found out it was called Dallachy.

I got to my hotel in Garmouth fairly early. After a half pint and a shower, I had a nap. When I returned to the bar for supper, I noticed several women in biking Lycra and bids for the Great North Ride. I asked one where they had started this morning. The answer was Aberdeen! She had ridden 85 miles or so! They will ride back tomorrow.

I feel like a wimp. I tell myself that they were on lightweight road bikes and weren’t carrying a lot of clobber. (I later confirmed this point.)

The multiplicity of athletic events in these parts this weekend sheds light on part of my issues today. I believe my original destination for today was Elgin. However, I couldn’t find an available bed there. At the time, I thought it was because today is a Saturday. Now I wonder if it was because of all the amateur athletes wanting beds for their sporting events.