Saturday, 22 October 2016

On being an authority, of sorts

While in Scotland, I made fairly frequent use of my rain shoe covers until the last several days when good weather reigned. (And rain didn't.)   However, the covers had seen better days with fraying stitching and weakening velcro. They were MEC brand and quite effective. Unfortunately, the design had a mild flaw which caused people to sue MEC into withdrawing them from sale and indeed issuing a product recall.  I had been trying to get a suitable replacement for them for months to no avail, so when in Kirkwall, I bought a new pair. However, the weather has been quite dry these last couple of months, so it was only in the last week that I have really used them. And I found them wanting. So I went back to the old ones.

Because of this, when I was in MEC this afternoon on other business, I stopped by the bike department to see if there was anything suitable. As luck would have it, there was a new type of rain shoe cover for sale which fit the bill and my feet. I therefore returned the well-used, and recalled pair for a refund and used the money to help pay for the new version! I felt a bit guilty about this, but not enough to seek confession.

There was a rush at the cash as the store was about to close, so after paying for the new shoe covers, I went to the door to don them (it was raining).  As I did so, a man in scruffy urban cycling togs, asked me about my rain pants and then rain jacket. His approach to biking in the rain was a poncho, but evidently he had doubts about it.  I gave him my opinion, namely that my Activa rain pants had served me well for ten years and that my Showers Pass Transit jacket was value for the money and, no it wasn't too warm as it had pit zips. I was a shade embarassed at saying this, as a glance at his gear suggested a jobbering, budget approach to cycling gear.  In plain language, he wasn't as blessed as I in his biking budget. I made an attempt to cover my relative expenditure by saying my bike was my car, hence... 

As we chatted, a second cyclist approached me and asked where had I got my rain shoe covers! I told him that I had just bought them, then and there! I felt like I was the authority on biking in the rain!

Thursday, 15 September 2016

On the end of my trip

I guess the place to begin is Inverness. I had chosen an earlier train than strictly necessary in order to have time to try and buy a CD or two of Scottish music, most notably a Red Hot Chili Pipers CD so I could give it to Col as a bit of a tease. (He's a rock music aficionado.) I therefore stashed most of my bags in the lovely lockers at the train station and rather foolishly set off on the bike for the shopping centre. This was foolish as it turns out the shopping centre is next to the station. I'd have done better to add my helmet to the the stuff in the locker, secured the bike to a bike rack and walked. Anyway, I found the music I wanted. 

I went back the station to have a shower. I then found supper in a nearby pub which featured a good selection of real ale. As I was eating, some other patrons came in, three ordered wine, whereas the fourth ordered a Budweiser. When I went to order a second pint, I asked the batman if he ever got discouraged by such behaviour? He shrugged and said it was money in his pocket. A little later, two couples of older people came in together. One of them asked if the Supermoose T-shirt I was wearing referred to a bar! I said no, it was just a novelty tourist shirt. One couple was from Vermont, the other from England.

Back to the station to retrieve bike and panniers, then over to the Caledonian Sleeper where I employed a cunning strategy I worked out. Typically the bike-carrying car is located close to entry to the platform. However, I have  come to the conclusion that the best way to proceed is to go to the sleeping compartment, put the bags in the cabin and  then bring the bike to it's car thereby saving a bit lugging of panniers.

The trip South was uneventful. Not having get up at 3:45 AM to move bikes made it much easier get a good night's sleep. (I have learnt that it is only Fort William trains that are so afflicted.) Ironically, I woke up briefly in Waverly Station at about 1 AM. A little after seven, I asked the attendant giving me my morning coffee and shortbread biscuits how close the train was to being on time, thinking that long distance trains often pick up a bit of delay. I was surprised when he said that we were going to arrive a minute ahead of schedule!

In Euston Station, I bought a breakfast roll (i.e. bacon and egg in a bun) and walked over to one of the bike parking areas to eat it. While I munched away, I witnessed at least a couple of businessmen exit the station and proceed to unlock a bicycle from the rack and head off, presumably to their offices. I was a bit surprised to realise that they evidently keep a bike at Euston Station for the station-office segment of their morning commute!  To my mind, this speaks wonders for the state of biking in Britain.  

I spent some more time bumming around Regent's Park, including stopping to have tea by a pond filled with birds. I could look up which pond it was, but I don't feel like it. I was killing time as I didn't wish to have a day in London, but did want to shop at Cadenhead's Whisky Shop which only opened at 10:30. In a sense, I was stuck with Leonardo and bags, but it wasn't that great a hardship. At Cadenhead's, I made a number of purchases, most notably a bottle of the defintive version of the Kilkeran 10-year Single Malt. (Cadenhead's is more or less the retail arm of J.A. Mitchell, makers of Springbank and other fine whiskies.) I also got a bottle of Old Raj Gin for Caddy as I had been informed she is something of a gin fan.

I then caught a train to Didcot from Paddington Station. Caddy's Dan was there to greet me, as was Bella who told me of her tail of woe and of how she had been beaten with rolled up strips of bacon and then not been allowed to eat the bacon or even lick the crumbs off her fur. ;-) 

What next?  My stay with Elly and Collin is now a bit of blur. I told them about my journey and things I had seen. Caddy was happy to get the gin and Collin enjoyed the beer from Orkney I brought with me. The next day was somewhat wet, so I took a train without Leonardo to Oxford, where I saw acres of bike parking at the station and around town. I saw a large number of East Asian tourists, likely Chinese. I nearly went to see the new Swallows and Amazons movie but the timing wasn't right, so I had lunch and the Eagle and Child instead. I spent a shade too much time and money in bookstores, including the surreal Blackwell book store and it's underground Norrington Room.

On the Saturday, I took in a visit to the Didcot Railway Centre which included a ride in a train hauled by the King Edward II steam locomotive. I took a picture of it for Edward's benefit. Then it was time to head to Heathrow and catch a 787 back to Montreal. This involved a somewhat surreal experience as although British Airways has the entirety of Terminal 5 almost exclusively to itself (and the terminal has 3 sub-terminals) getting to my plane involved taking a "mystery bus tour" and walking up a gangway!

The flight was nondescript which is good. The high point was the meal where the choices were between roast beef or chicken tikka Marsala which, as I pointed out before, represents a considerable amount of British cooking, and especially adjusted for the fact that fish and chips doesn't fly as airline food (pun intended). I had chosen the chicken tikka Marsala The real problem came from the fact that the plane landed in Montreal at 8 PM which was sufficiently late that it made jet lag harder to deal with. 

Monday, 5 September 2016

On photographs and issues relating to it

Hi. I tried to upload some photos from my trip tonight and got frickin' nowhere as Google has taken over Picassa and is much less user-friendly, or to be more accurate it seems to assume the users are idiots and therefore doesn't give them tools such as "sort album by date" and the like. I am seriously considering moving my pictures to a better host.

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 a "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 put the prehistory of the place in a very strange place to 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.