I recently managed to win some ferry tickets on a Visit Scotland competition. The prize was a return fare for two people from Aberdeen to Kirkwall in Orkney. As a regular visitor to the islands from fencing training camps/social weekends for many years now, I was overjoyed. There was one clear choice of person for the second ticket. My adventure buddy Naomi, who also went to the aforementioned trips with me and similarly loves the Orkney isles. As plans unfolded, it transpired that we were both in the process of purchasing new bikes. It also became apparent that bikes can be taken on to the ferry free of charge. So, the idea of taking the bikes with us then progressed into a camping, cycling and exploration trip.
As the ferry sets sail at 5pm, I had all day to plan my gear and get ready. I charged all of my mobile phone batteries, packed up the panniers and then set off to meet Naomi at Union Square and also buy a map of the islands. Oh, and to pick up more tissues than I could possibly need due to the pricing strategy Boots have of charging 50p per individual tissue, or £1.50 for a crate of 100 or so packs. Cross the road and head over to the ferry terminal. We were off! The first exciting part of the trip was cycling on to the ferry as though we were in a car. I was expecting bikes to be taken more as luggage than a vehicle. We left the bikes and hoped that the staff there would tie them securely and headed up to the deck to take some photos and just generally be excited before enjoying fish and chips and delicious Orkney Fudge cheesecake (FOOD WIN).
Following a choppy ferry journey, we arrived in Orkney at 11PM and headed straight for the pre-booked camp-site in Kirkwall at the Pickaquoy centre. Tent up in minutes, air-mat blown up and the pillow that I hunted Aberdeen for in the morning sorted. Having been for a 7 mile run earlier in the day and had a long boat trip, I was suitably tired and ready to crawl into my sleeping bag. I say crawl into, it was more like flap about like a baby seal on land rather than a crawl. I never have gotten the hang of getting in and out of a sleeping bag with ease!
In the morning, we packed up camp (despite being fairly certain we only built it about 5 minutes ago). First night in the tent was fairly comfortable, but I had decided that my mat was too hard and that I would try putting less air into it the following night. On a brief look around the camp-site, I realised that the facilities were very good. Clean showers, sitting room, kitchen… Unfortunately, we had no use for any of these as we were heading off, but the extra facilities were shown in the price for a night’s camping. We then went for breakfast in Kirkwall before heading out of town and hitting the road.
The first journey would take us from Kirkwall heading West and the North along the coast, via Finstown. A quick stop in Finstown as we came across the workshop, gallery and shop of Orcadian artist Jane Glue. After a quick look around there, we headed to the food van to purchase what would turn out to be tastiest roll every filled with lean BBQ pulled beef (FOOD WIN). Fantastic. Carry on following the coast road to our destination of Eviesdale camp-site in the north-east of the island. Total mileage for the day was 19.27 and elevation of 258 metres.
The notices on the fence told us to choose a side of the road, set up camp and then someone would be along at some point to take money from us. We had two choices; the camping ground near the amenities or across the road in the camping ground with the stunning views. We chose across the road to set up camp, and you will see why in the photo below. After setting up camp, we went along to find the only shop in miles. Unfortunately, it was also the worst stocked shop ever, so we just scrambled together various ingredients and hoped we could make a meal out of it. Due to the freezing temperatures that night, we found that cooking pasta in lukewarm water is actually pretty tough. some more ingredients thrown in the pot and I ended up with a plate of something that sorta resembled food (FOOD FAIL). Thankfully, near the camp-site was a private member’s bar/club which welcomed visitors. On entering, it smelled like a proper auld mannie pub, but it was warm and friendly and served alcohol.
On getting up in the morning, we realised that we had no breakfast at all. That’s OK though, there’s a cafe or something over on Rousay island so off we went and cycled the few miles to the ferry terminal at 8:30 in the morning where we met another cyclist who was also staying at the campsite. On asking on the boat about cafe opening times, we were told about numerous places… which would all be opening at 11. Argh! There was however a shop about 3 miles east-north-east of the ferry terminal. This would end the discussions about which way we would travel around the island and anti-clockwise it was. The first thing we saw was a garden full of animals sculptures made from old rope and other such materials. The coo in the photo below was fantastic. After cycling for about 3.5 miles and still no sign of this mythical shop, we continued to share the limited supply of snacks that I had brought with me, but let’s face it, half a Marathon bar (what do you mean they changed that name? A long time ago? Huh…) is not quite the breakfast we had in mind (FOOD FAIL). Almost given up on finding the shop, we went exploring and found a stunning 4 mile circular walk which gave us spectacular views of cliffs from afar and a lot of wildlife (from a little too close as the Great Skua tried to take my head home). Back on the bikes, ready to face the big hill that was in front of us, while running from a large group of attacking clegs, when suddenly we found the shop. Presented with all manner of goodies, we stocked up on everything from apples to sausages and Orkney Fudge. The shop was staffed by a very nice older couple, who gave us use of their private garden area to sit and have our picnic (FOOD WIN). Up the long, steep climb to reach the top of the hill, we briefly paused for a couple of photos and to embrace the long, sweeping, downhill road that we saw in front of us.
At the bottom of the hill, we met the other cyclist from the camp-site, who was circling the island in the opposite direction. We stopped and shared some tips about shops and nice walks. In return we got tips of where to see seals. We quickly headed off down the side road and found about a dozen or so seals lying sunbathing. In the cold. Bizarre animals. The next stop on our tour was a 3 mile walk up a hill to find Peerie Water and Muckle water. Unfortunately, what we found was a puddle and Peerie water, which we accidentally promoted before heading back to the bikes having never seen Muckle water. Some more exploration down here, along farm tracks and down to the beach. Starting to get hungry again, we came back to the bikes and headed along to a hotel that we knew about. Little did we know there would be all sorts of activities going on for sodjer’s day. We met another couple of cyclists on a tandem who told us of the wonders of a BBQ and cakes. Sounds good to me! In we went for what was the nicest tasting pint of Crabbies in my life before going round the back to enjoy burgers and cakes (FOOD WIN). Naomi then jumped into the back of a van and got a huge scar on her cheek from a 15 year old girl. Quite realistic too, as we would later find through other people’s concerns. A quick climb up a hill to find a chambered cairn before cycling the last couple of miles back to the ferry port. Today’s mileage was 22.32 with an ascent of 486 Metres.
As we moved on today, we gave ourselves the luxury of a bit of a long lie. On the way back to the camp-site yesterday, there was a box at the end of a driveway with a notice selling eggs at £1 for a half dozen. Naomi boiled them up for us and we had very tasty, fresh Orkney eggs and Orkney oat cakes for breakfast (FOOD WIN). Our next destination was ultimately Stromness, but we had a few places that we wanted to visit on the way there, so would be taking the long way around the coast. The first stop was at a lovely wee town called Birsay. A very nice lunch stop there with stunning views, good food and cake (FOOD WIN) before having a walk to the Brough of Birsay. Here, there is a path to the island which is accessible depending on tides. As the path was partially covered, I stood at one side of it looking while a seal decided to cross the path right in front of me. Luckily, I had the camera to hand and managed to snap the seal crossing.
After this, we stopped at Skara Brae. If you have never visited this 5,000 year old, fantastically preserved neolithic village, then I would thoroughly recommend it. However, we have both been before so did not feel the need to pay to see something that (hopefully) will not have changed since the last time. Instead, we went in hunt of a natural arch. After a quick look, we decided to have a walk up to the tops of the cliffs and have a walk along to see if we could see it. This was a fascinating walk, as I stopped to look at vast gulleys in the cliffs and nesting sea birds all around. Watching them feeding their young and listening to the noises of all the different birds was amazing. We got up a high point of the cliffs and was treated to a brilliant view of Hoy and the Old Man of Hoy from a distance. On the way back, we climbed over rocks on the shore until we finally found the natural arch in all of its glory. Next stops along the route were the two stone circles; Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness.
Stromness is a beautiful, small fishing town with bars, chip shops and restaurants (complete with actual food, made by an actual real person). After setting camp, we went in search of some of this actual food and stumbled on a restaurant bragging of fresh, local food. We got a table for 9 pm and went in to find a lovely real fire burning at the side of the restaurant. We both had an absolutely brilliant meal. Huge portions, fresh ingredients and brilliant, friendly service into the bargain (FOOD WIN). Total mileage today was 28.44 with 419 metres total ascent.
The final day, we planned an “easy day.” We would pop over to Hoy, cycle the short width of the island and then nip back to Kirkwall for a curry. Yeah. We did our sums wrong. 6 miles from one end of the island to the other, followed by a 3 mile walk out to the Old Man of Hoy and then back meant the day would come in at 27 miles cycling and 6 miles+ of walking with ascent of 447 metres. Not to worry, the weather was now fantastic, and after a weekend of freezing cold winds it was a treat. We caught the 10am ferry over to Hoy and headed off along the rattly road on our bikes. At the end of the road was a rustic hostel and several museums. Also the signposts for the path that leads to the Old Man of Hoy. When we reached there, the walk was well worth the effort. Not only did we see the magnificent sea stack, but nesting in the cliffs beside it were loads of sea birds and much to my delight included puffins. One of my goals of the weekend was to see some puffins, so to see a whole bunch of them on my last day was perfect.
Final cycle ride into Kirkwall to meet some friends for curry (FOOD WIN). Here, I had the first bike problems of the weekend though as my gears basically fell apart under the bike. Thankfully, this was at the end of the weekend and the bike shop will be reimbursing me for repairs. We caught the ferry at 11pm and after a drink headed in to the sleeping pod area, for what would turn out to be a miserably sleepless nights in a loud, bright and uncomfortable room. Into Aberdeen, crossed the road to Union Square where it all began. Definitely a trip to remember and one that I would love to repeat.