I woke up on my second morning on this lovely campsite early. It’s fully light here at this time of year from about 3.30 am and although I curled back up in my sleeping bag when this first sky lightening occurred, the warm sun was beginning to heat the tent. Hard to sleep when that starts. I had planned to head north today, having spent a good bit of time exploring what South Ronaldsay had to offer, on foot and awheel. I took the causeways across from south Ronaldsay on to the Orkney Mainland via Burray, Gills Holm and Lambs Holm. It proved to be fascinating ride including glimpses back into Orkney’s past, with views of the rusting hulks of block ships, still visible as you pass over the causeways, old vessels deliberately wrecked to protect the Royal Navy in Scapa Flow.
When finally they failed to stop a U boat getting in and sinking the Royal Oak, during the Second World War they were replaced by the Churchill Barriers. These are now the Causeways themselves, built by Italian prisoners of war, working alongside British civilian labourers and building a relationship with the Orcadians which lasts to this day and to which the delicate Italian Chapel, perched on the edge of Lambs Holm still bears witness, whether you hold to an organised faith or not. This whole story is both desperately sad and enormously uplifting at the same time. About a week after this, I was to wake up back on mainland Scotland, to discover the referendum result. If only we didn’t have such short memories and could learn more from our shared histories and experiences, rather than worry about perceived differences.
Leaving the Italian Chapel, I went on to Kirkwall. It wasn’t far but there was a pretty strong headwind most of the time. A headwind which sweeps up and over the headlands, so you can be climbing a reasonable gradient and still have a headwind to contend with as well. This pattern of weather was to dominate my whole trip in fact. Dry, bright and sunny, but with a brisk north easterly, which occasionally became a very strong wind. So I was pleased to reach Kirkwall, a fair sized town, with an impressive red stone cathedral dominating its centre. It was also pretty full of visitors that day, plenty of coach tours plus the passengers off a massive cruise liner that had docked in the newer harbour, 2 miles outside the centre. And, more importantly, for a hungry rider who’s been battling a headwind, tea shops, cafes and a decent supermarket for supper supplies.
I made my return trip into a sort of circular tour of the southern part of mainland Orkney, going back past the airport. I had a tailwind for some of this so my feet felt much more lively in the pedals on the trip back through green fields and moorland under sunny skies with ever changing views of sea and causeway. Once back at my tent, a tea of salmon, steamed spinach and new potatoes took about 30 minutes to prepare and once consumed I walked down to the beach for one last visit.
The next day I broke camp, packed the bike and headed up to Stromness planning to camp there before heading to Hoy. I was already realising that the strong winds were making my “50 mile a day when packed” estimate not exactly unrealistic, but just not the easy day with plenty of time to stop and do other stuff that I had planned it would be. The headwinds were bad enough, but the cross winds were worse. My wrists and arms ached from constantly having to keep the bike from veering sideways into the main stream of traffic, or on to the rough verge at the road side, when a cross wind blasted me. And while the Orkneys lack any really tough climbs, there are rises across the headlands and up from the causeways which, unlike tougher climbs up proper hills, offer no protection from the headwinds. So you can be climbing, with all your kit, and still fighting a headwind. It was definitely not the easy ride I thought it would be, when I had been planning it and thinking of other trips I’ve done with far more regular climbing. Plus, of course, each year, I get a bit older! It looked like my 50 mile a day average was going to drop a bit, especially if I wanted a couple of days walking fitted in.
It was afternoon when I finally reached Stromness. Which appeared completely closed on this lovely windy, sunny Sunday, apart from a supermarket and a couple of cafes. The campsite, on a pier next to a golf course, was very busy and the only pitches left available to tents were way back from the sea, facing some grotty warehouses. Not for me. I decided to take the last ferry over to Hoy and camp in the garden of the hostel at Rackwick Bay. It’s just a little ferry and takes only half an hour.
By the time I finally reached Hoy it was gone 8pm. Then I had to ride a few miles across the island to the hostel. I stopped a few times, convinced I could see the sea eagles that nest in the cliffs here. The terrain on this northern part of Hoy was very different to Mainland Orkney, less green farmland, more wild hilly moorland, reminiscent of the Highlands.
When I finally arrived at the hostel I discovered that camping there is no longer allowed. The SYHA no longer run the hostel and there was a rather unfriendly, handwritten note on the front door saying that the building was hired out privately for two weeks and please use the toilets on the way to the beach. On the garden gate was a no camping sign. It was now getting late. I was pretty tired, having ridden well over 50 miles with full camping kit, a large proportion of it into a head or crosswind. Luckily, it was still beautifully sunny and bright, despite my watch telling me it was nearly 10pm. I rode down in the direction of the beach. There was a patch of flat land on the way with Camper vans and cars by the toilets. Not a pleasant place to camp. I looked at my map, which indicated a good sized stream running through the fields beyond, towards the beach, and a small building marked Burnmouth which reminded me there was a bothy there. Two farm gates were open so I rode through along the path and down to the bothy. The bothy garden was completely enclosed by a drystone wall, which though beautifully built made me feel a little closed in, so I chose a spot outside the wall, overlooking the beach. By 11pm I had pitched, brewed and made a hot chocolate. Still bright sunshine, just a hint of sunset tones in the sky and edging the clouds.
But, by now, I was exhausted and fell asleep wrapped up in my sleeping bag, safely inside the tent, but with the front flap still tied back. Luckily it stayed breezy enough all night to keep midges at bay, even if I did wake up about five hours later with a very cold head.
Despite the brisk northerly, the weather was still gloriously sunny. I woke in the morning, realising I had fallen in love with the Rackwick Bay wild pitch and decided to stay at least a couple of nights to do some walking.
After a leisurely breakfast followed by a paddle in the sea which was literally a few steps down the pebble beach on to the sand and into the cool clear sea, I packed a bag and took a hike up to the Old Man of Hoy. I could see from the map that, although it wasn’t visible from my tent, it was literally just behind the cliffs I could see from my wild camp pitch. I packed a bag with a flask of coffee and some lunch and zipped up my tent. Despite the glorious weather, no one else was around on this Monday morning. It was an easy walk up, past the few houses that make up the tiny settlement, my only company, seabirds and a few sheep. At the top of the climb , walking along the path, the imposing seastack begins rising up into view, out of the sea, gaining in grandeur as you walk up and along the cliffs towards it.
The nearer I got, the more inappropriately named this striking, imposing natural structure seemed to me. Less an Old Man of the Sea, more an Old Warrior, bravely standing tall and straight against the hammering of the waves, but ultimately doomed. Perched on the edge of the cliff, it seems just a few yards away, a few yards with crashing waves and sharp rocks way below.
I had a quick snack, during which I could see a few coloured specks at a distance, back on the path I had used earlier. Specks which grew bigger all the time, bobbing from side to side with a movement and definition that grew larger and more human all the time. More folk on their way. I packed my bag and decided to explore hilly Hoy a bit more.
There are few marked paths on Hoy but it’s a small island and in clear, bright weather like this not hard to find your way across the heather and bog up the hills making up your own entertaining walks across this end of the island. It’s far more reminiscent of mainland and Highland terrain than the Orkneys I had seen so far, which were much more low lying, green and agricultural. I tromped around for several hours up,and down, trying not to disturb the nesting wild birds which seemed to be everywhere. Every cliff edge delivered terrific sea views. As I turned from the sea to head back inland I realised the brisk wind was getting even brisker and the higher I climbed the harder it was to walk into it. I decided to head back down to lower levels and enjoy my beach wild camp in the sheltered bay.
The wind was indeed gathering even more strength. Luckily, being a northeasterly and as Rackwick Bay is on the western side of Hoy I had some decent shelter. Otherwise I would have definitely had to repitch my tent away from the beach. This was to be my last evening at Rackwick, so I prepared to enjoy it. As I was finishing my supper, a Dutch hiker turned up. We chatted for a while and he then decided to pitch in the bothy garden and I noticed his pristine Trangia set, like mine except it was gleaming and unbattered. “nice new Trangia” I remarked. “More than thirty years old”, he replied. I made a mental note not to let him see my scratched, battered and burnt set. Too embarrassing. All his kit was amazingly gleaming and bright . How do these people do it.
It was a pretty windy night, but I find the battering of the wind against the tent strangely reassuring. All that strength and power howling around and just a little bit of nylon protecting you perfectly.
The next morning I had decided to have a leisurely breaking of the camp and enjoy yet another beautifully sunny morning to the full. I was up early though, around 5.30 and Mr Dutchman appeared to have gone already. I filled my water containers, made several cups of tea, a bowl of porridge, packed the kit, made a pot of coffee, packed the cooker, took the tent down and sat on the beach drinking one last cup of coffee. And saw Mr Dutchman emerge from the bothy, looking tired and tousled. He had been unable to sleep in the tent due to the wind and had gone into the bothy in the middle of the night, desperate for sleep. I wondered how he was going to cope on the rest of his Scottish trip if he didn’t get used to sleeping on windy nights.
I finally finished packing the bike and, slightly reluctantly, rode out of Rackwick on a glorious morning, the bay flooded with sunshine, sparkling off the clear sea. The farm gates on the fields which were all conveniently open on my arrival, were now padlocked shut! I hoped it wasn’t personal, but realised I must just have been lucky on the day I came. Now I had to fit the bike and luggage through an extremely narrow wooden kissing gate. So the bike had to be unpacked, pushed through on its back wheel and then repacked. Then I was off. Not back to Moaness, for the Stromness ferry on which I had arrived, but down the length of the island on its only road, about twenty odd miles, to Longhope, and then back about 6 to Lyness, for the ferry to Houton on Orkney Mainland.