Category: United Kingdom

Our third ferry journey of the day loomed, 5.5 hours from Lerwick in the Shetland Islands to Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands.

We had plenty of time before departure, so took a detour which led us alongside a runway at one point – I’m sure any airplanes would appreciate the fact that it was a tad more level than the road!

Checking in was a little chaotic as Lerwick is not the largest of towns and the ferry port is in the town itself. There were some minor traffic management issues, but eventually we got through and onto the ferry.

There was the added complication of the staff needing to load all vehicles that were disembarking at Kirkwall in the correct place so that we wouldn’t be blocked by those continuing on to Aberdeen, just to add to the logistics. Hats off to these folk – they really know their business (which is reassuring when you think about it!).

Bikes secured, we grabbed the picnic we had bought before boarding, and headed for the upper decks. We munched on a few supplies on the rear deck while we watched the Shetland Islands gradually recede, whilst keeping a hopeful eye out for whales, but the only sea life we spotted was a seal in the harbour and a few birds.

We did at least espy our first Northern puffin, who kept nice and still so Tony could capture a photo.

Eventually we gave up on the whale watching and strolled through the main deck past shops and cafe, looking for a place to sit. Just before reaching the forward bar, who should we see but the Estonian barman from Saxa Vord, who had left for a visit home the day before us. He had a table to himself, so we ensconced ourselves, bought a round of drinks, and settled in for a chat.

We had an excellent view of Fair Isle as we went past, but still no whale or non-stationary puffin sightings…

After a lesson in just where Estonia is and a good old natter about life and travelling, we left our friend to continue on to Aberdeen and his long journey home, and headed back to the bikes for our arrival in Kirkwall.

We were due to dock at 11pm, so had pre-booked a night in a Bed & Breakfast. We didn’t relish the thought of trying to find somewhere to stay at that time of night, nor of setting up camp.

It was only a few miles to the B&B, and still light enough even at that time to make it easy to find our way. We parked up and found the door open and a nice note from the owner with our keys, as he had gone out for the evening. How lovely to be in a place where folk can still leave doors open without fearing for their safety.

We unloaded as quietly as we could as we didn’t want to wake our fellow guests at this late hour, and settled into our cosy room with a can of cider each to celebrate our arrival.

Welcome to Orkney! 🙂

After the rally we headed even further north to Unst, the most northerly populated island in the British Isles. We were going to get used to lots of “Most Northerly” monikers over the next few days!

The rally was near Vidlin in the North-East of the main island, so the journey to Unst involved two ferry crossings with a ride along the length of Yell in between.

We’d booked to stay in the hostel at Saxa Vord for a few days, which seemed highly appropriate as it was the old Sergents’ Mess of the RAF base on the island.

Bathroom and kitchen facilities were shared as for most hostels, but this was sheer luxury for us after a few days camping. We took full advantage of the hot water supply with a good soak in the bath, utter bliss.

We self-catered for most of our stay, which enabled us to meet some of our fellow hostelers over the kitchen table. They were an interesting bunch, mostly enthusiastic bird watchers from an assortment of backgrounds and countries.

It was great to bump into one of our fellow rally goers at the most northerly Post Office whilst buying post cards.

Shopping for supplies gave us an insight into what it’s like to live somewhere this remote: “No bread till tomorrow, milk should be in Wednesday!”.

The Summer Solstice and our first Wedding Anniversary fell on the Tuesday after the rally.

We enjoyed a lovely ride around the island, and were pleased to find a couple of standing stones to the South of the island.

The second of these at Bordastubble had amazing acoustic properties, which started to echo my voice as I was walking towards it whilst chatting to Tony.

Muness Castle was well worth the visit, as were the remains of a Viking house at Underhoull, and the beach at Lund.

On our way back we dropped in to the most northerly pub at the Baltasound Hotel.

We enjoyed some banter with the locals and owner, who broke into the supplies of cider that he’d ordered in for an upcoming festival, just for us. We were so bowled over by how friendly everyone was that we booked to have dinner in the restaurant in a couple of days time.

Heading back to Saxa Vord, we had just enough time for a quick wash and spruce up before our celebratory dinner in the restaurant at the resort.

The lovely folk at Saxa Vord really spoilt us with a complimentary bottle of wine and our own special anniversary dessert, both completely unexpected and very gratefully received.

Later that night we enjoyed a spectacular sunset before the twilight of the simmer dim.

Over the next few days we quite spectacularly failed to get to the Hermaness National Nature Reserve, which was the daily destination of many of our twitcher co-habitees.

Luckily for us (if not for them) we didn’t miss out too much, as no puffins were sighted during the length of our stay.

We did manage to spot a good number of the islands bird species on our travels though, including being dive-bombed by the fearless Great Skuas, locally known as Bonxies, on our ride up to the Radar Station at the top of the hill.

We’d hoped to get on a boat trip out past the Muckle Flugga Lighthouse (if only because it’s such a great name), but sadly this was also not to be.

This was not wholly unexpected after a chat to a lovely chap in the bar on our first evening at Saxa Vord. He’d been coming to Unst for four years, and had only just managed to do the boat trip the day before we arrived, as that was the first time that the weather had been favourable.

I’m guessing that the people who run the trips have an alternative source of income!

No visit to Unst would be complete without a visit to the famous Unst Bus Shelter, whose story is told most eloquently on its official website here. The guest book is now sporting a rather spiffing Wed-n-Fled sticker.

We were sad to leave Unst, but the Orkney Islands were calling, well, that and our booking for the ferry.

We packed up, said our goodbyes to staff and guests at Saxa Vord, and headed back across Unst and Yell to Lerwick on the main island.

Joy of joys – after keeping our eyes peeled for all the time we’d been in Shetland we finally saw a sea otter, who I swear gave us a little wave when we spotted him in the harbour just as we rode off the Yell ferry!

He back-flipped away into the bay, and I bounced in my seat all the way to Lerwick, with the biggest grin on my face 🙂

So what is the simmer dim, anyway? And why would anyone name a bike rally after it?

Firstly it’s worth remembering just how far North the Shetland Islands are. If you’re anything like me you’ll have mostly seen them shown in a little box just off the cost of north of Scotland. This is about as true to life as the topological London Underground map, and in reality the islands are at a latitude not dissimilar to Bergen, Norway and mid Hudson Bay, Canada.

Whilst this means that they are not quite in the lands of the midnight sun, it does mean that at midsummer, it never gets completely dark. The sun dips below the horizon for around 5 hours, and the time in between is a surreal twilight known in Shetland as the “simmer dim”.

Bike rallies are often named after the events that inspire them, and as the rally is held over the closest weekend to the Summer Solstice at the time of the simmer dim, I guess the name seemed self-evident.

After the gloomy start to the Thursday of the rally, the weather improved considerably, gifting us with a beautifully clear night. One of our new friends, Stenton, had nipped out to go to the loo at around 1am, then came back in and grabbed us both to drag us outside. “You’ve got to see this” he shouted, and pointed across the field of tents to the simply stunning sight of the full moon hovering over the horizon in the simmer dim sky.

The next day was rather amazingly warm and sunny, so we took advantage and went for exploratory ride with Stenton. The scenery was stunning, with a strange kind of bleak beauty. We didn’t cover many miles as we stopped so often to take in the views, along with a ramble through the lovely little Tangwick Haa Museum that we stumbled upon just off the road to Eshaness.

After enjoying the cliffs at Eshaness lighthouse, we rode back through the wonderfully named Mavis Grind to Brae, where we scoffed a lovely fish and chip supper at the UK’s most Northerly Chippy.

I had wondered when I packed for the trip north if I was being a little optimistic including the sun cream, but was pleasantly surprised when the sun decided to keep us company for the majority of our time on Shetland – thank you weather gods!

Other highlights of the rally included a visit by local Jarl Squads, who serenaded us with such surreal Country and Western delights as “Coward of the County”, and the rather more appropriate “Bring Me Sunshine” of Morecombe and Wise fame.

It was nice to see them again at the Lerwick Carnival on Saturday afternoon, though without the singing this time.

Back on the motorcycles for a mini-fled at last! In June we returned to Aberdeen for the 4th time in 4 months, this time on our trusty Moto Guzzi V7s. We had bought tickets for the Simmer Dim Rally on the Shetland Islands, which is held every year over the closest weekend to the Summer Solstice, our wedding anniversary.

We saw a bit of it from the road!The first days ride was lovely – both of us were happy to be back on the road again. We broke the journey at Stirling, staying at a hotel right next to the Wallace Monument.

Sadly our schedule didn’t allow us time to actually visit the monument as we had a 50th Birthday party to get to, so it will have to wait until another time. After a decent nights sleep we packed the bikes up and set off for our second days riding, just as it started to rain.

Gone was the warmth of the previous day – as the rain started to soak through our “waterproofs”, we found ourselves getting colder and colder. I was so very grateful for my heated grips, which I had used on a number of occasions in the past. Tony doesn’t feel the cold as much as I do, so had never used his before. Unfortunately as he tried to turn them on, the control knob broke off in his hand. Bugger.

We were staying with friends about 20 miles North of Aberdeen. Luckily as fellow bikers they anticipated the depth of cold we would be feeling, and greeted us with hot drinks, towels, and a roaring log burner, all of which were very welcome! Once we had defrosted a little we headed over to the 50th party for a few drinks before coming back for a fairly early night.

The following Wednesday we rode back to Aberdeen to catch the ferry to Shetland. It is an overnight crossing so we had treated ourselves to a cabin, as we knew it would be a good idea to stock up on our sleep before the rally.

The ferry port was flooded with motorcycles, all heading to the rally – the lady at the gate said there were only a handful of cars booked for the ferry – I should imagine they were feeling a tad outnumbered!

We settled into our cabins before heading for the bar. Tony commented on how surprisingly quiet it was, considering the ship was full of bikers…

Cue a strolling bunch of biker “minstrels”: a couple of guitar players accompanied by several kazoos. Unusual to say the least, especially as they were playing “Ring of Fire” which is not generally known as a biker favourite. A jolly night of singing ensued before we retired to our cabin for some sleep.

The next morning we awoke bright and early to leave the ferry on arrival in Lerwick, Shetland. The rally site was only about 20 miles from the ferry terminal, which meant that we were there, had the tent up, and were finishing our breakfast by 9.30am.

Now normally we arrive at rallies on Friday afternoon or evening, so once the tent is set up we start socializing over a pint or three, but 9.30 on the Thursday morning was a tad early even for us. The weather was dark and drizzly, so we retreated back to the tent with warming cups of tea and coffee.


Wallace Monument photo credit: Son of Groucho via photopin cc

I had a big ah-ha moment on Friday when I realised that I was resisting blogging about coming home because I was so reluctant to come home. Then I ended up getting out of bed at 1.30am to write the darned thing… and then I left it another couple of days before I could bring myself to tackle my late night ramblings and make them a little more coherent… So here goes:

It was a bittersweet homecoming indeed. Whilst it was wonderful to see so many of our friends at the rally and to be greeted with a wealth of warmth and hugs, it was sad to know that we were nearing the premature end to this first chapter of our travels.

We were asked the first of many questions along the lines of, “Hey, it’s great to see you, but what are you doing back here? We thought you were going away for years!”.

This was something we were to get used to hearing a lot over the next few months.

The rally itself was great fun, but also not without its ups and downs. As so often happens in early October, the weather was surprisingly warm and sunny. It was also seasonably windy, very windy, which meant that the huge bonfire that was usually lit at around midnight on the Saturday could not be – the club running the rally made the sensible decision not to light it as the wind would have blown hot embers straight over the tents in the camping field, which would have been less than ideal.

It was a great shame as one of the joys of this rally in the past had been to enjoy a good old sing song around the campfire with friends. The upside was that we had a slightly earlier night than we would have had otherwise, so every windy cloud has a silver lining.

We were slow to pack up on the Sunday (that reluctance was manifesting itself again), and we ended up with the last tent still standing. The club were busy with clearing and cleaning the site, and a couple of them stopped by for a last natter.

Finally we dragged ourselves away and headed for home.

We had been away for 2 months, had ridden 3,354 miles through 5 countries and 2 principalities, enjoyed countless twisty turny roads, and more ups and downs than you can shake a stick at.

Our trip may have been temporarily delayed, but boy, what a ride so far!

Photo credit: wallyg via photopin cc

Despite the disappointment of having our trip curtailed, we had at least managed to time things so that we could go home via a bike rally, “Ye Gert Busturds”, run by the Moonrakers MCC in deepest darkest Wiltshire. For those of you that haven’t heard of bike rallies, they are nothing at all to do with racing. They are basically biker parties, held in pubs, halls and marquees across the land. Mostly people camp, and there is often live music, the imbibing of the odd alcoholic beverage, and usually a lot of laughing and silliness. Oh and hugs, lots of hugs – bikers might look like a scary bunch en masse, but really they’re mostly a bunch of teddy bears who hardly ever bite the heads off chickens any more 😉

We’d arrived in Portsmouth on a Thursday and the rally wasn’t starting until Friday, so we’d arranged to stay with a friend who lived 30 miles away. Lucky it wasn’t too far to ride, given how green around the gills I was feeling! Navigating by the skin of our teeth and the occasional aid of Google maps on my iPhone, as our SatNav (Mip) was still completely dead, we headed off down some lovely country lanes in search of somewhere to stop for a late brunch.

The road we had taken off the M27 was devoid of any habitation other than the odd farm dotted here and there, so eventually we took a single-lane road to the left, as a pub was signposted to be within hailing distance. What felt like 10 miles later but was probably a lot less we finally found the place, only to find they’d stopped serving food about 20 minutes before. D’oh! Luckily we had lots of directions from the locals, who came out in force to gawp at these two pasty looking strangers on loaded up motorbikes, and eventually we found the village they’d mentioned. We pulled into the car park of the White Horse Inn, attracted by the sign outside that said “Food available all day” – huzzah!

The pub was indeed serving food all day, and had a choice of a full Indian menu or a more traditional English pub grub menu. As someone who would happily eat curry for breakfast, lunch and tea Tony was in his element. I was still feeling rather delicate, so went for the more classic gammon and chips. It was just what the doctor ordered, and after washing the meal and a couple of paracetamol down with lashings of orange juice and lemonade, we went on our way feeling much refreshed.

That evening we had a good catch up with our friend whilst watching him sort through his belongings, as he was moving out the following weekend. I wimped out early and left the two boys talking late into the night, so was feeling considerably better the next day. Well fed and watered we left for the rally, after promising to return the following weekend to help with the move.