Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Day 17 – 19th of July 2015 Wick to John O’Groats onto the Orkneys

I had a very late night yesterday so I awoke much later than usual.  I had been drinking bitter shandy’s last night and the toilet was at the other end of the campsite.  I had been carrying a collapsible water container but had found no use for it as I had good access to water throughout the trip and was only keeping it as throwing it away was such a waste…. I had at last found a suitable use for it.

I got up when I heard a motorbike leave and realised other people were up before me, something I am not used to!!  I got up and began to put my tent away and pack the bike, I had camped under a tree near the office for wi-fi and this was a mistake! I was being gnawed at by very tiny mozzies so I played a game of getting what I needed then stepping out from under the tree into the rain to work in wet but mozzie free conditions.

Jose decided to make an appearance and he saw me off with a wave and a hug, we then went our separate ways with him promising to visit Birmingham on the hope that one of our sisters might be interested in him!!!  He was very incorrigible.

I headed out and through the town of Wick and stopped at Tesco’s for a breakfast, I ate it quickly as I wanted to get to John O’Groats and catch a ferry to the Orkneys.  After much advice and talking to different people I decided the best way to get onto the Orkneys was via South Ronaldsy and make my way around Scapa flow.

It is was only approx. 20 miles from where I camped in Wick to John O’Groats so I took it at a leisurely pace taking in as much of my surroundings as possible.  I passed through Reiss and Keiss.  On the way I passed a few end to enders some just starting and some finishing as they didn’t have that adventure just starting grin.

I saw a loan cyclist and he waved to me, then I recognised that I had seen him yesterday briefly when I was talking to the group of end to enders.  I had assumed he was with them when in fact he was solo.  His name was James Stott and he was riding an old steel frame, his parents had given him a love of touring and he was so proud that he was using his mums old panniers (built to last and very sturdy)  He originally toured on his mums old frame with Reynolds 501 tubing but it was snapped in an collision with a car.  He had purchased a replacement steel bike on ebay, it was only £150 but you could tell he adored it!  It had 26 inch wheels and he had done the end to end on it in 10 days, he had suffered two snapped spokes, unfortunately one on the freewheel side so he had done his best to true it without actually replacing the spoke, this said a lot about the sturdiness of those older bikes.

We chatted for a while and he said to me that so many people talk about doing something but never get much further and the hardest part of it is actually walking out the door, he talked about the group that we had bumped into yesterday and told me when they arrived their girlfriends were waiting they had been following with a support van and tents etc..  I felt I could have chatted for ages I could have learned a lot from him, his parents must have been so proud of him.  He had a train to catch and as is the way with tourers we smiled waved and didn’t look back each going our own way.

I soon made it to John O’Groats and took a quick picture at the signpost, I made a V sign which was my way of saying 2nd time here! I didn’t actually know where the ferry office was so I went into the little gift shop at the harbour edge, there were two disinterested teenagers in attendance, more interested in themselves than me, I asked if they knew where I could buy a ferry ticket and the lad said you have already past it..  I knew this would be a slow and painful process, so I repeated where is the ticket office and he said back up there to your  left, I couldn’t help myself but point out that actually I had come in from the right, but it was over his head as his brain obviously couldn’t cope with the higher functions required to connect his conversation to mine.  

Armed with my detailed directions I went outside and rode in big circles around the buildings till I spotted the ferry office and rode towards it so I could make my enquires and purchase a ticket.  I was met by a more mature lady who was instantly helpful and knowledgeable, as it was a Sunday the next sailing would be at 4pm so I had several hours to kill, she suggested a café and I headed towards it.  The lady was sure they had wi-fi and this was not the case (afterwards I realised she meant the store room not the one I was in).   

I bought a standard coffee served out of an URN (not filter just nescaffe) and a very thin and lonely looking slice of walnut cake.  When I went to the till it had cost me £6.80…  I felt violated and had to prize my wallet open I was sure the rest of the customers could hear it screaming or perhaps they were to busy listening to the tears of their own wallets.   There was a couple with three children and a grandmother, they all had full breakfasts etc.. and I shudder to think of the cost.

As a revenge I located a table with plugs in and proceeded to charge every device I had to leach as much of the establishments power from them as I could, I imagined rigging up a wire with some resistance to put as much load on as possible and recoup some of my hard earned but easily lost cash.   I was however in slight luck, on John O’Groats there are a series of holiday chalets each painted a different garish colour, they look completely out of place and would continue to do so unless John O’Groats turned into a drug induced version of the Sixties, until then they would stand there as a testimony to the United Colours of Benneton.

I stole as much electricity as I could and worked on my itinery and blog, I decided to get changed into my wet weather gear as the wind had picked up and brought driving rain with it.  I headed into the toilets and began changing, at the point when I was most naked a woman walked in and screamed, or it may even have been me.   I said I think this is the mens, and a deeper male voice said from next door no mate your in the ladies I saw you go in (thanks for the heads up!).  The lady had quickly dodged out and shouted don’t worry I will guard the door (hopefully not till the police arrive to take the naked cyclist away).  

I put my clothes on as fast as I could, however as with most things you rush I put my t-shirt on backwards and then had to turn it round.  I nearly crashed through one of the loo doors in a rush to get my leg into my waterproof trousers.  In the end I managed to extricate myself without breaking anything and true to her word the lady had guarded the door.

I made profuse apologies and she smiled and said, don’t worry you made my day!!  I hope that it was because of my manly physique but I had my suspicion she was referring to the comedy element.  I sat down and concentrated on not remaining red faced for the rest of the day.

There was a lot of spare room in the café so I had turned my table into makeshift office, a group of elderly ladies came in and one began complaining to her friend about me taking up a whole table and was it really necessary to have all those gadgets… I looked up and straight at her and put on my friendliest smile and asked her if she was enjoying her holiday, I continued a forced conversation with her being as up beat and nice as I could possibly be.   I could see the discomfort on her face but I was enjoying putting her on the spot as she wasn’t very bothered about being vociferous about me for everyone else in the room to hear.

Eventually here tea and scones arrived and I knew better than to get between an elderly person and their tea and scones… wars have started for less, so I did the cowardly thing and stopped being nice to her and went back to writing and planning.

Eventually time passed and I made my way down to the docks, there was a young lad playing with his mum (aboute 12 or 13) I asked if he would run to the end of the dock and film me arriving on my Garmin Virb.   He was overjoyed and dragged his mum with him, they filmed me arriving and then we chatted for a while before he got bored and headed back up to the shopping area.

One of the harbour hands came along another young lad but very polite and he asked why I was going to Orkney so I explained and he gave me some tips for the island.  I asked him to take a photo and he did, I explained the half click to him (courtesy of Mark at work) and showed him the effect of shooting from wild angles, he really liked it and began taking some photos of me at the dock.

Pretty soon the ferry arrived and I waited for the myriad of foreign tourists to pour off the ferry before the crew helped me on with my bike.  As we pulled away I went up on deck and the lad who had chatted to me was waving his arms and over the engine noise and wind I heard “your garmin”..  I ran to the bike and realised it had fallen out of my bag when I was s(rummaging for my ticket.   In a blind panic I went up to the skipper and he told me not to worry as I was the only passenger he would turn the boat round, if I was a cat I would be less one life!

The ferry across was uneventful I took some photos with the crew and soon we arrived in Burwick.  I left the ferry and made my way through the crowd to catch it’s return to John O’Groats.  At the top a lady spoke to me, she was Swedish and wanted to know why I had all the kit on my bike.
After explaining I set off towards my end destination which was Kirkwall, I was staying with a retired Australian couple who were themselves house for a couple who lived on the island and kindly put up other bike tourers when they visted the Orkneys.  It was getting late after the crossing and I now had a 20 mile jaunt.

Pretty soon into my ride I met a very substantial girl walking towards me, she waved and said she had seen me arrive, I didn’t ask why she was walking back but saw she was enjoying herself, she had a beaming smile and even her voice seemed to resonate with happiness, it lifted my spirits even higher than they were and we waved each other goodbye and continued on.

The road to Kirkwall is fairly hilly, but the evening weather was calm with very little wind so I was making good progress.  I was amazed at the wildlife that greeted me, the island seemed like a bird sanctuary and there was a constant symphony of bird calls as I made my way across the islands.  To get from island to island there are a series of causeways forming part of Churchills barrier to prevent german U boats from sinking the fleet in Scapa Flow.

On the 13th of October 1939 the German U-boat U47, managed to sneak undetected into Scapa Flow.  It managed to torpedo HMS Royal Oak which was anchored and it sank quickly with a loss of 833 lives.   After the war most of the steel in the world was irriadiated due to the nuclear weapons and tests that had taken place, however the steel from ships such as the Royal oak that had sank at Scapa Flow were salvaged as a source of steel not affected by this.

I passed through South Ronaldsy and St Margarets Hope then across the causeway to Burray and passing through them I saw wrecks of ships with their hulls jutting upwards rusting away into a brown nothingness, apparently in Scapa Flow there are over 150 wrecks but most of them have been salvaged for steel.   

I finally skipped across a small island and I came to my final causeway for the day.  Just before crossing the causeway on the right is a wonderful chapel called the Italian chapel, it was built during the 2nd world war by Italian prisoners kept on the island.  It has been preserved by the islanders and with visits from some of it’s original founders.

The chapel stounds out against it’s sparse surroundings as I cycled up to it I could see it was well maintained.   There was a cross outside to the left which had been gifted to the islanders from the Italians much later after the war and I got off my bike to view the building.
 On entering the chapel you are instantly aware of the peaceful nature and it’s interior was at odds with it’s surroundings.  Whilst the outside was sparse rural land the interior was like a tardis transporting you elsewhere, and I can imagine the prisoners who built it had yearned for a little part of their home.

There were wooden carved stations of the cross leading up to the alter which was behind a wrought iron gate carefully and beautifully hand crafted, the ceiling held a beautiful mural and the altar at the end was looked over by an amazing painting of the Madonna.
(add more description here when there’s time)

My hosts had sent me a message saying they had made me a dinner so I was conscious of arriving however I was really enjoying the cycle across and I kept stopping to take photographs and to try and catch some decent shots of the birds I was seeing, they were very elusive!

At one point I stopped and had a chat with an enormous bull in a field he wasn’t very talkative and I retrieved an apple from my bags as a bribe, I passed it to him but he wasn’t interested I left it at his feet and he looked at it with disdain, he was obviously the king around here and my paltry offering was not sufficient.  I waved him goodbye and as I left he changed his mind and gave out a snort as if to say goodbye, I briefly looked back and caught him eating the apple, even kings like apples then.
The ride across the islands although hilly was pleasant and on one of the climbs I came across two old boys, one of them with a long beard and a podge, I stopped and said hi, their campervan had overheated so they were walking to the village to get help and a taxi back to their campsite.  I suggested they call the taxi firm to fetch them but they said they would rather walk, it made very little sense to me as their campsite was in the opposite direction and the taxi would have to bring them back this way… you just cannot fathom some people!

I asked if some water would help if it was overheating (I had 3 litres to donate) and they said they would get a mechanic to take a look so I gave them a drink of my water as I had plenty and left them to puff there way along the road.  I shortly passed the campervan a very old and beaten VW which despite it’s condition probably had a hundred thousand miles left in it if their reputation was to be believed!

I made my way through the last climbs to Kirkwall, and then loaded up google maps on my phone to workout where my hosts lived, my instructions were that that the house was hard to find, it had no number only a name and was behing a big stone hose with two driveways that was on a road near to another.  I had the road name but no postcode, however google found the road for me and I used it’s directions to supplement my Garmin Touring plus.

I have to admit the google maps did an excellent job and even found some shortcuts through the Kirkwall estates to the road I was looking for, now as if by magic the very endpoint it had selected left me to pull up outside the big stone house and I wandered up the drive feeling very fortunate not to have to wander up and down the road as there were a few stone houses!
I was greeted by my hosts Ron and Deborah who were retired sheep farmers from Australia, they had sold their farm and were following the rainbows wherever their fancy took them.   Deborah had classical music playing for which she had a passion, she used to direct a choir and Ron and I talked about their work volunteering for an archeological dig on the Cairns at South Ronaldsy.  They had met the owners of the house as I had through Warmshowers and become such good friends they had been invited to house sit for them.   

Deborah was as hardy as they come and very practical she cooked a beautiful meal with chicken and vegetables whilst ron entertained me.  Dinner was followed by Mackays icecream and Fresh Cream poured over it with strawberries, blueberries and raspberries which I wolfed down, my hosts must have seen how much I enjoyed them and offered me seconds, I refused as I was full but the temptation was there it was delicious!!

As the cream was poured an enormous and furry black cat appeared, his name was Dillon and his gestures and noises were as close as a cat could get to saying Cream Please.  I had finished mine so used my finger scoop out some cream which he removed attentively (before I left in the morning I had also secretly poured him some which he lapped up eagerly)  I had firmly established myself as a friend with Dillon so he rolled over to get his stomach scratched then wondered off to survey the rest of his kingdom. Some paintings on the kitchen wall by one of the children had identified him as king Dillon along with several other cats who were his family and other local cats, there was a picture of the back of a cat disappearing and it simply said Dillons father he did not want to be drawn.]

I found out while the family had gone Debora and Ron had laid a new floor in the bathroom for them and were making their way round the house tidying it and organising it for them as the owners lead very busy lives!  I felt a little helpless as my time their meant there was little I could do to assist and any help I offered was declined politely!  Later on we discussed bikes there was a storage room at the front for my bike and it was filled with at least 10 other bikes, Deborah explained her rear brake was too loose and asked if I would take a look, I was tired but seized the opportunity to repay their hospitality.  

I soon had the bike flipped over and removed the adjustment at the brake end and then tightened up the caliper.  Her rear pads were very worn so I showed her and told her to get some new ones as soon as she could.   One of my handlebars needed the tape re-wrapping so I took the opportunity to do that and showed Ron how to do it.

After dinner I washed my clothes and put them in the dryer with Ron’s help and then made some sandwiches for the morning.   Deborah had retired to the living room to finish watching the proms and I made my way upstairs for a shower some phone calls and some blogging, I remember collapsing onto my bed exhausted and to briefly recall the events of the day and then sinking into a well-earned oblivion…

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