Wednesday 20 August 2014

Edinburgh, Scotland - Epilogue

When I first set out on this trip with Bart, I remember him being worried that a cycle tour around northern Europe might not be adventurous enough for us. I told Bart that no matter where you travel, if it's by bicycle, then adventure will always come your way. And it did.

The first few weeks were a dream as we cycled fast and easily through Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. We pitched our tent at nights in woods and fields with the cranes for company. We listened to bittern boom across the lakes and black grouse lek in the fields. We cycled out into cold, frosty mornings but during the day the sun warmed us and it was hot. Few people were on the move and we felt as if we had the world to ourselves.

But it was when we turned north and made the long cycle up through Finland and Norway to the North Cape at the top of Europe that things got really exciting. A combination of an early start to our tour and a late winter plunged our ride into snow and ice with temperatures as low as minus 10 degrees. We cycled with frozen hands and feet and pitched the tent in snow. These conditions culminated in blizzards at the North Cape itself. But it was a challenge to cycle and camp in such elements and the winter white landscapes were spectacular. We absolutely loved it.

Of course, I found adventure again in Iceland courtesy of the elements and had to cycle and camp in storm force winds and days on end of heavy rain in a country that's often empty and remote. 

But I wasn't only looking for adventure. I really wanted to see the landscapes of the northern remote reaches of Europe. Of the places that I saw, two really stand out for me. The first was the west coast of Norway which I think is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Rugged, snow-capped mountains rise from a sea as clear as glass and long fingers of fjords extend into a lush, green landscape. 

To cap it all are the Lofoten Islands. A spectacular archipelago of sheer rock dotted with unbelievably charming fishing villages.  The second place with breathtaking landscapes was Iceland. Its dramatic and diverse interior of rock and ice contrasted with the coastland which was wild and beautiful and full of birds.

But perhaps the greatest revelation to me was my "discovery" of the Orkney and Shetland Islands off the north coast of Scotland. I felt as if I had found two new lands within my own country, each having its special charms and beauty. Orkney especially was a place with an other-worldly atmosphere and a touch of magic. I can't wait to go back.

Of course at the end of a trip like this, people always want to know what your favourite bit was. I always tell people it's too hard to choose as each part has its own character that adds to the sum of the whole journey. But when I'm old and look back on life and think about my "northern exposure" trip, the image that will always pop into my head first is the long cycle north through the snowy winter wonderland of Finland.

One of the key aspects of the trip for me was to experience the light of a northern summer and for three months I didn't see darkness. In northern Norway the sun belted out full beams from a blue, cloudless sky 24 hours a day and it was difficult to sleep. I think we cycled down Norway sleep-deprived and bleary-eyed. But I much preferred the more subtle light of Iceland and Scotland. Here there was more cloud to veil the sun and a softer, more atmosphic light shone through.

There were moments of spectacular light on the trip. One was at the North Cape when we were coming back out. It was late evening and the road had been engulfed by blizzards but at one moment the sun briefly broke through the snow-filled sky. The other moments were beautiful sunsets in Orkney when the sun sank slowly into the sea in a blaze of pink and orange, and by a lake in Finland that reflected a burning sky.

So now the sun has set on my northern exposure tour. Thank you for following the journey. I hope my words and pictures enabled you to share the landscapes, the light and some of the adventure. I'll sign off with some beautiful words from TA Robertson that I found on a wall in Shetland.

When we, like all before us, have gone home,
Some traveller in the centuries to come,
May read what we have done our best to write,
About this land of glimmering Northern light.

Saturday 16 August 2014

Lerwick, Shetland Islands - 60 degrees north

I was quietly watching rain run down the windows of the ferry terminal and reflect the lights of the MV Hrossey, my ferry to Shetland, as it pulled into Kirkwall in the black of night. Suddenly there was a flurry of activity as a police car pulled up and four officers strode purposefully into the waiting room. They questioned each of the passengers and when they got to me, I learned that wooden carvings had been stolen from the Italian Chapel.  I'd visited just a couple of days before. It was very sad news, not just the theft but also the abuse of a system of trust that still works today on the islands. But at least it was also heartening that people still care so much about that wee place to despatch posses of police to all the ports.

Next morning l cycled off the ferry at Lerwick and onto Shetland, an archipelago of rugged islands belonging to Scotland but a long way adrift in the North Atlantic. It was still pouring with rain and blowing a hoolie so I considered my options over gluten-free toast and coffee in a harbour cafe. The harbour stretches all the way along the waterfront and really dominates the town. With rain set to continue and winds forecast to build, I had to rein in my plans to cycle to the top of the islands and instead set out on a tour of Shetland's mainland that was "peerie". That's Shetland for small!

I pedalled out of Lerwick, Shetland's capital, up the east side into a stiff northerly. I quickly left the busy main road that runs the length of the islands and followed quiet, single-track roads that hugged the coastline or made impossibly steep climbs over headlands. There were no beaches here, just rugged rocky shores and cliffs. The interior of the islands is composed of hills of heather moor and peat bog, and I cycled over this on idyllic tiny roads to cross to the west side. From high points I could see other islands rising steeply from the rough seas.

On the west side I meandered down a convoluted coastline with many sea inlets called voes in Shetland rather than fjords. l gazed out over a myriad of offshore islands and skerries. Terns screeched and dived and I had a glimpse of an otter. In the gentler areas at the coast there was a patchwork of worked fields dotted with houses and farms, and every now and again a small village set around a harbour or old fishing station, as of course fishing has been central to Shetland life for many generations.

Through the rain showers there were glimpses of Shetland's dramatic coastal scenery from white sand beaches to plunging cliffs. Glimpses that made me tell myself I'd be coming back for a longer visit. It's funny how in conversation we always lump Orkney and Shetland together but they're very different. Shetland is wilder, emptier, more rugged and much more mountainous. Life is squeezed out to the coastal margins. The Norse influence, from the days when Shetland belonged to Norway, is still strong but most of all Shetland reminded me of that other remote, North Atlantic archipelago, the Faroe Islands. The landscape was similar, the existence marginal and the elements dominant.  There was one other thing that completed the picture ... the wind. There is always a fierce wind blowing in Shetland. It can change the weather in seconds and drive grown cyclists to tears.

I pedalled down the west on a mission to visit a place in Shetland with a very moving story. On a sunny morning I cycled along the harbour front of Scalloway, Shetland's ancient capital. Halfway along and looking out to sea was a simple but beautiful memorial to the Shetland Bus. The Shetland Bus was a network of boats based in Scalloway during the war that ran clandestine operations between Shetland and Norway to support the Norwegian resistance movement. The boats, disguised as normal fishing boats, carried Norwegian agents and military supplies, and in season brought back Christmas trees for treeless Shetland. To assure good cover the boats operated at night and in stormy conditions, and inevitably many Norwegian fighters lost their lives. The memorial sits on a cairn of stones collected from the towns on Shetland involved in the operation and from the home town of each of the Norwegians who perished. A very simple but very moving gesture.

I've spent all of this trip living in my tent but there is a unique type of accommodation in Shetland that I wanted to check out called the camping bod.

Historic buildings with a bit of rustic charm have been renovated to provide cheap beds for visitors whilst at the same time assuring their long-term future. I cycled into the small hamlet of Voe to spend a night in one of these called the Sail Loft. It was once the winter store for the sails of fishing boats and when steam boats took over, it became the thriving woollen workshop of TM Adie & Sons. But the really interesting thing about the Sail Loft is that it was here that the woollen sweaters worn by Sir Edmund Hilary on his successful first ascent of Everest in 1953 were made. I guess you know how to wrap up warm when you live at 60 degrees north.

After my pedal down the west side I cycled back over the hills to the east and pootled around Lerwick on a rare afternoon of sunshine. I loved Lerwick's tight little streets presumably designed to keep out the worst of the weather, the charm of its old harbour and the bustle of its new. I loved its grand Victorian buildings stacked on the hill and accessed by the steep stairs of a "closs". That's Shetland for "close" which is Scots for "passage".

It's hard to believe its already late summer. Here in Shetland there's now a wee chill edge to the wind and the geese are becoming restless. As summer draws to a close so does my "northern exposure" cycle tour. Tonight I'll take the boat from Lerwick to Aberdeen and return south, if mainland Scotland counts as south.

Keep reading for some final ramblings, thoughts and highlights. In other words, an epilogue. What was my favourite place? What was the hardest thing? And will I be trading my bike in for this Shetland pony?

More Shetland photos on flickr - click on the link.

Fact File
Daylight - 17 hours, 45 mins
Distance - 5656 miles, 9102 kms
Days -  140
Route -  cycled north of Lerwick on national cycle route 1 which initially uses Shetland's main trunk road which is quite busy. Soon leaves it for B road on the east side.  I followed it to Voe and south to the Tingwall Valley, Scalloway and back over to Lerwick. Mostly on delightful single track roads.  Shetland doesn't have big hills but there are plenty of short, very steep climbs. There are regular wee grocery stores that make logistics easy.

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Kirkwall, Orkney Islands - Another time, another place

If you were to imagine the perfect summer bicycle tour, you might imagine a place where you are pedalling along quiet back roads under a hot sun, picking up groceries in pretty villages, pitching your tent by beaches of white sand and parking up the bike along the way to make lots of little visits to places of interest. You might imagine the Orkney Islands.

The only trouble with Orkney is that there is so much to see that you hardly cover any cycling miles. It was lucky then that my friend Graham and I got a few miles under our tires on the cycle from Inverness to the Orkney ferry at Scrabster. It was a journey of real contrasts starting out with an idyllic pedal across the Black Isle. The single track road wound its way along the top  of a ridge above farms and woodlands with open views across the waters of the Moray Firth to the south and the Cromarty Firth to the north. We crossed the Cromarty Firth by a tiny, two-car summer ferry. It connects the beautiful old village of Cromarty with its narrow streets and pretty cottages to the modern oil and renewables plants at Nigg. It's the only ferry still in operation from the former network of boats that connected up the east coast.

When we cycled off the ferry we headed north through a very different landscape as we crossed the moors and empty lands of Caithness. The single track road seemed to be the only sign of modern man's presence and the views from it stretched for miles. Grey clouds gathered above and the wind picked up to a level that almost blew me off the road but the sun burst through in places spotlighting the hills and the rain stayed off. Next day was a rollercoaster ride along the north coast under a hot summer sun. It was a different landscape again of sandy beaches and small crofting villages set against the backdrop of the mountains of Ben Hope and Ben Loyal.

Then on an evening of late summer light, our ferry crossed to Orkney, slipping by the sea stack of the Old Man of Hoy, its sandstone layers glowing orange in the setting sun. The ferry pulled into the harbour at Stromness, tiny in comparison to the ship. We pedalled in the dusk to the campsite through its meandering streets trying to avoid the old central line of cobbles, originally laid to provide grip for horses' hooves.

The following days on Orkney were a dream. Sun beat down from blue skies and picked out the patchwork of green fields that cover the islands. We cycled, but not much.

On the first day on the road after torrential rain in Stromness, we cycled in early morning light to the Ring of Brodgar, a circle of Neolithic standing stones. They rest on a narrow bridge of land with water on two sides, vast views across the landscape and below the big skies of Orkney. As the sun rose into a cloudless sky and the breeze whispered through the grasses, I soaked up the atmosphere and the magic of the place.

A few minutes south by bike from the Ring of Brodgar is another important archeological site, a chambered burial tomb called Maeshowe. We parked up the bikes and joined a guided tour, the only way you  are allowed to enter.

Crouched down and crawling through the low entrance passage, we came into a large underground chamber which was dark and cold. The chamber also dates from Neolithic times and though we might think of people from then as being primitive, they had somehow engineered this structure with huge slabs of stone weighing several tons. There were side chambers on three of the walls where the human remains would have been placed and huge "block" stones at their entrances that would have been moved into position to seal the chambers. There was also a huge block stone at the entrance passage and it made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck when the guide told us that it still works and can only be closed from the inside. The chamber was carefully constructed so that the winter solstice sun, passing above the low hills of neighbouring Hoy, shone through the entrance passage and illuminated the back wall. That gave me goosebumps to add to the standing hairs.

From Maeshowe we cycled north up Orkney's mainland as roadside daisies danced in the breeze to one of Europe's most significant ancient sites, the Neolithic village of Skara Brae. Here the ancient houses and even the interior fittings such as beds and dressers can still be seen in the exposed remains below the turf. The village was hidden  for millenia until a storm in the winter of 1850 exposed its stonework. The village sits right at the edge of the sea where white sand is washed by turquoise waters. It's a remarkable experience visiting these ancients sites on Orkney but the most remarkable thing of all is that they are 5000 years old.

Late afternoon pedalling from Skara Brae took us around the north of Orkney's mainland and we ended a perfect day with a beachside wild camp and a beautiful sunset.

On another day of sunny skies but brisk winds we cycled through Orkney's capital town, Kirkwall, and further south to explore more recent history. As we crested a rise the sparkling waters of Scapa Flow came into sight and we whizzed down to the coast and across the causeway of one of the Churchill Barriers, built during the war to protect the British fleet from submarine attack by cutting off entry through the narrow access channels. The barriers were built by Italian prisoners of war who were housed nearby.

We cycled to the location of their camp on Lamb Holm Island but not much remains today except one very special place called the Italian Chapel. It was built by the prisoners from two Nissan huts and very basic materials as a place of worship during their internment. The outside is simple but beautiful and the interior is exquisite. The main artist was Domenico Chiocchetti, one of the Italian prisoners. Even when the war ended and his fellow inmates returned home, he stayed on to finish the chapel. It's hard to imagine that, unless you've been to Orkney. The Italians asked the Orcadians to promise to look after their chapel after they had gone and there is a black and white photo on display of some of the former Italian prisoners who made a return visit in 1992. l found this story incredibly touching and blinked back a few tears as l gazed across the quiet waters of Scapa Flow.

In the last few days Graham and I had pedalled much of Orkney's mainland but we wanted to visit one of the outer islands as well and so boarded a ferry to Westray, one and a half hours sail to the north. The ferry was stuffed full with islanders returning home from the biggest event in the Orkney year, the Kirkwall agricultural show. We cycled off the ferry into an evening of heavy rain blasted horizontal by a fierce wind. Westray is really out there. The ferryman said we were welcome to spend the night in the waiting room so we rolled out our sleeping mats on the long benches and enjoyed the ensuite facilities.

The sun shone next day as we cycled around the island, stopping to watch puffins and seabirds on the cliffs, to walk along idyllic beaches, to pedal passed the tumbling walls and rampant brambles of an abandonned village and eat a picnic lunch in the island's main village, Pierowall. Its a pretty place with a row of cottages set around a semicircular bay of turquoise water and white sand. There was a special atmosphere here as in so many places in Orkney and I felt like I was far away from Scotland in another time and another place.

Tonight I'm taking a ferry to another far away place, the Shetlands, which incredibly lie more than 100 miles off Scotland's north coast. But before I get there, here are some more favourites photos from the magical Orkney Islands.

More photos on flickr - click the link.

Fact File
Daylight - 18 hours
Distance - 5567 miles, 8959 kms
Days - 135
Route - from Inverness followed national bike route 1 north to Tongue and Thurso. Took ferry from Scrabster to Stromness. Cycled a loop around mainland Orkney north of Stromness then round to Kirkwall. Took a ferry to Westray and cycled its 10 miles or so of road.

Saturday 2 August 2014

Inverness, Scotland - These are a few of my favourite things

I'm now in Inverness,  Scotland's northern city. I cycled here from Monifieth through Perthshire, over the Drumochter Pass and alongside the Cairngorm Mountains. It's a route I've cycled many times but after a spell in foreign lands, it's nice to see again some of these favourite things.

Summer fields of hay. I love cycling the little farm roads of Scotland at this time of year as the gold of the fields contrasts with a blue sky full of screeching swifts. This is the Carse of Gowrie, a belt of rolling agricultural land and berry fields on the north bank of the River Tay between Dundee and Perth. The cycle route follows lovely quiet back roads before making a huge climb over Kinnoull Hill and sneaking in Perth's back door.

Dunkeld. This is a small village on the Tay that oozes charm. It was once the religious centre of Scotland and attractive cottages crowd together along the narrow main street, leading up to the grand old cathedral. It dates from the 13th century and houses the tomb of one my distant ancestors, Alexander Stewart, otherwise known as the Wolf of Badenoch. But much more important than any historical stuff, is the availability in Dunkeld of gluten-free fish suppers.

Perthshire. With small hills and big mountains, an abundance of lakes and forests, and a network of quiet back roads linking together attractive villages, Perthshire is cycle heaven. There are a few wee, steep passes as well to test the legs. It's especially gorgeous later in the year when the woods are a palette of autumn colours.

Drumochter Pass. It may host one of the country's major transport arteries and the hideous new Beauly to Denny powerline, but I still enjoy the cycle through the pass on the traffic-free cycle route that uses some of the old road, secretly tucked away in the trees. Of course, Drumochter has been a transport artery for centuries. Queen Victoria passed this way in 1861 but was not impressed with the dining experience which she described as "two starved chickens, without tea and no potatoes".

Hettie's Place. I couldn't grumble about the food as I stoked the boilers for climbing the pass with a gluten-free muffin at this great wee tea room in Pitlochry. It’s all very pink and flowery with tea served in old-fashioned cups and saucers of the sort my great granny brought out for visitors. You'll find it right on the main street. It's very kitsch whilst at the same time being very hip!

Cairngorms. These are some of the highest mountains in Scotland, forming a huge sub-arctic plateau and a vast area of wild land. Snow can linger here well into summer. The mountains are fringed  to the north by the ancient Caledonian pine forests of Rothiemurchus. There are few more enjoyable experiences in life than pedalling dreamily along the dirt trails that meander through the trees.

I'm loitering briefly in Inverness to pick up another favourite thing, my friend Graham, who is joining me for the pedal around the Orkney Islands.

 Remember to check out all the photos on my Flickr site - click on the link to the right.

Fact File
Daylight - 18 hours, 15 mins
Distance - 5313 miles, 8550km
Days - 125
Route - retraced my route to Dundee then followed  cycle route 77, known as the Salmon Run, to Pitlochry. A lovely route. Cycled along south side of Loch Tummel then climbed over to Trinafour before decsending to Calvine. Cycled bike route 7 from Calvine to Slochd Pass - it takes in Drumochter, Speyside and the Cairngorms - where I left it to cycle up the beautiful Strathdearn before a big climb on a tiny, deserted road to Farr. Finally small back roads into Inverness. 

Sunday 27 July 2014

Monifieth, Scotland - A cycle to the simmer dim

On the first morning of my two-day ferry journey to Iceland, the boat slipped by a cluster of mist-shrouded, wind-blasted, low-lying islands, way out on their own in the bleak waters of the North Sea. They were the Shetland Islands, the most northerly outpost of Scotland. So if you've not already guessed, the final leg of my northern exposure is a cycle to Shetland. I'm looking forward to experiencing Scotland's northern summer light, the simmer dim. Given that it's a continuation of a cycle journey in other countries, it's going to be interesting to make direct comparisons with home. How good are the bike paths? How good are the drivers? Is it easier to camp wild here? Where will I find wifi and gluten-free cakes?

My cycle to the simmer dim, started with riding across Scotland's capital city, Edinburgh. As a touring cyclist, it's often a bit of a challenge getting across a big city but in the cities I'd crossed during this trip such as Amsterdam, Helsinki and Reykjavik, there was excellent provision of bike paths to make it fairly fuss-free. So I was really pleased to discover the same in Edinburgh as I crossed the city on a network of traffic-free bike paths and quiet roads that delivered me to the iconic Forth Rail Bridge via Edinburgh's river, the Water of Leith, and the wooded byways of Dalmeny Estate, a substantial country pile overlooking the Firth of Forth.

l stayed on the national cycle network as I biked across the agricultural landscapes of Fife. Fife is where I did most of my growing up but I was really trying to experience my journey as if I was one of the several loaded-up cycle tourists I passed on the route who were seeing the place for the first time. And so I would say that I had a gorgeous journey across Fife. The sun beat down from a blue sky as I pedalled along the coast, passing beaches, small harbours and pleasant little seaside villages bustling with activity at the height of summer holidays.

At Kirkcaldy my route turned inland and found some beautiful little back roads that made steep climbs over rolling hills to give me views across a patchwork of fields ripe with wheat and bursting with potatoes. I cycled through pleasant farming villages with colourful wildflower meadows and busy little grocery stores whose counters were offering locally-grown blueberries and raspberries. And in north-east Fife the national bike route passed through Tentsmuir, a large coastal forest criss-crossed by trails and bounded by long sand beaches. In the 18th century there was moorland here and when the Danish fleet was shipwrecked offshore, they set up homes in tents on the moor, giving rise to the name, Tentsmuir. As I pedalled through the forest, I was engulfed by the aroma of hot pines that made me imagine I was cycling somewhere more exotic.

The joy didn't end there as a traffic-free bike path took me across the Tay Bridge and continued alongside the waters of the River Tay before they morph into sea. At moments I cycled right beside the sea as my route headed east along the promenade to Broughty Ferry, home of my maternal ancestors and home of me until the age of seven. Cool, clear sea water lapped against the sea walls as a haar blew in on an easterly breeze, swirling atmospherically around Broughty Castle and the sailing boats on the water. I was grateful for the drop in temperature on a day when newspaper headlines read "Scotland hotter than Sicily".

All-in-all the cycle journey across Fife gave me a real "feel good" factor and, although there were no dramatic, wild landscapes, the ride was as enjoyable as that in the other countries I cycled through. Undoubtedly that impression was aided by the fabulous weather. In the first few days I've not been able to compare camping or availability of wifi as I've stopped at my dad's house in Kirkcaldy and my mum's house in Monifeith, both conveniently located on the national cycle network! But at a cute little cafe in Broughty Ferry, I have already found gluten-free cakes!

Fact File
Daylight - 18 hours, 27 minutes
Distance - 5146 miles, 8282kms
Days - 118
Route - crossed Edinburgh from Portobello to Dalmeny on city route 10, then the Water of Leith cycle route taking the Granton spur to Cramond. Cycled on the esplanade then to Dalmeny on the John Muir Way cycle route. Took National Cycle Network route 76 to Kirkcaldy, a lovely route that in places uses the Fife Coastal Path. Took route 1/766 via Leuchars to Monifieth. There are bike paths on both Forth and Tay bridges. All these routes are mostly well signposted.