I was awake by 6.00 am. I laid in bed trying to get a bit more rest before giving up and getting my bags ready for the off. I went through to Breakfast at 7.30. It was just me and Gordon, the B&B owner. Gordon is a lovely man and a marvellous host but he has a funny idea of a continental breakfast. I guess that here in John O’Groats is about as far from the continent as one can get in the mainland U.K, so that might be to be expected. So it was that I was soon polishing off my breakfast of Cheerios, yoghurt (with some fruit to be fair) and white toast.
If my bum didn’t want to get on to the saddle the previous morning, then today was even worse. It wasn’t helped by knowing that I would be having a stop start morning on and off the saddle. At least the first part of the day was easy. I gingerly swung my leg over the bar and climbed aboard. All I had to do was point the bike northwards, get it moving a bit, and then allow the gradual slope down to the coast to glide me to the harbour.
I got my ferry ticket and joined the queue waiting to board. There wasn’t long to wait but there were a lot of people on board the 8.45 am sailing. They were mostly coach groups who were clearly being passed over by their regular coach tour drivers into the hands of some Orkney drivers for the day instead.
Once aboard, the ferry trip across the Pentland Firth was quite straightforward. It was a calm morning and though there was some swell in the very middle of the crossing, it passed uneventfully. Sadly there was no sign of any sealife but it was lovely to be on the open water and watch the Orkney islands coming into view. I also enjoyed chatting to some ladies looking forward to their visit to the Islands.
We came into the harbour at Burwick and quickly disembarked. Although I was one of the first off I parked myself up at the waiting room and made use of the facilities. I waited until all of the other passengers had been ushered onto the waiting coaches and had headed off away from the harbour. There was, after all, no point in getting myself in front and then having a line of coaches waiting to get past me. Better to let them go and then have the road to myself.
The original plan for today was that I would have the whole day to spend ambling around the islands before meeting my other half in Kirkwall at the end of the day. She was working at the Ness of Brodgar excavations however due to a change in schedule earlier in the week they now had the day off. Instead the plan was that I would just meet her in Kirkwall; although there was some confusion (entirely on my part) as to when.
There was no confusion as to the first part of the ride though. First up was the cycle across South Ronaldsay towards the Orkney mainland. After passing the welcome to Orkney sign the road starts to climb gently along some rolling hills leading upwards towards a viewpoint over the islands. Just as I was coming to the top of the hill my phone rang. Stopping to answer it was my other half asking how much longer I was going to be as she was waiting for me in Kirkwall. Therefore the ride was now a case of getting a wiggle on and making this as quick a dash as possible into town.
I set off at a better pace and made the next mile or two into St Margarets Hope on the north side of South Ronaldsay. I took a detour from the main road and dropped down into the village. We have friends living here and this is where my partner had been staying during her two weeks here. We’d be coming back here later on today before heading for the ferry back to Aberdeen. I therefore had the opportunity to drop off anything that I wouldn’t be needing for the rest of day. I was soon heading back on my way with only one, much lighter, pannier and without the spare tyre and extra water bag I had been carrying until now.
After the briefest of turn arounds I was back on the bike. The first thing I noticed was when picking it up to turn it back to face the road; I could suddenly lift it with almost no effort. Getting back into the saddle things felt even better. I flew up the short slope out of St Margaret’s Hope and re-joined the main road at flying speed.
I was very quickly upon the first of the four Churchill Barriers. The barriers were built during World War II in order to protect Scapa Flow from enemy ships. The barriers were not actually finished before the end of the war and now serve as causeways linking the southern islands to the mainland. They are named, rather imaginatively, Barriers 1 – 4; numbered from North to South.
Barrier 4 leads from South Ronaldsay to Burray. Whereas the other barriers still cross open waters, the eastern side of Barrier 4 has become a beach meaning the this barrier has a different feel to the others. Burray village is a small hamlet of a handful of houses nestled against a bay on the South side of the island. The slightest of rises leads you to a view over a small bay that feels like, but is not, another of the barriers. Instead after that false start another rise onto the Northern slopes of Burray leads to a view down over Barrier 3 and onto the tiny island of Glimps Holm.
Barrier 3 is the first of the proper causeways; the road surface sits on top of a pile of concrete blocks. To the side of the causeway the remains of some Block Ships were visible above the water line. These were part of an earlier; mostly WWI attempt to protect the naval base of Scapa Flow using scuttled ships to prevent access. By the time of WWII they were already falling apart and an invading German U Boat managed to sneak its way into the flow and sank the HMS Royal Oak with the loss of 834 men. It was this that led to the building of the barriers.
Glimps Holm and the next island, Lambs Holm are tiny; they are linked by Barrier 2 and I flew over them in no time. For anyone with time to spare, Lambs Holm is home to the famous Italian PoW Chapel. Italian Prisoners of War were (probably illegally) used to build the barriers and whilst doing so they were allowed to build their own chapel here. I’ve visited on a previous trip to Orkney. The photo below is from that trip. Today I was flying past, but the chapel is certainly one of Orkney’s must see sights.
From Lambs Holm, Barrier Number 1 brought me onto the Orkney mainland. In order to get to Kirkwall as quickly as possible I ignored the NCN1 signs turning off to the right and stayed instead on the A961 to follow the most direct route. The road was not busy and, unlike many of the A roads of the previous four days, this is a decent and wide road so any passing vehicles did have plenty of space to pass me.
The dual villages of Holm and St Marys (the names seem to be interchangeable) are another set of pretty houses set against a small fishing harbour. At the end of the village by the said harbour the road swings North and a long, continual climb begins. The hill is not sharp and, with so much weight removed from the bike, I was still flying and loving the ride. However there is undoubtedly a sadist working for the Highways department here. At the top of the slope a ‘Blind Summit’ warning sign indicates that you have hit the top of the hill. However within 50 yards of reaching the ‘summit’ the hill starts to climb again before another Blind Summit sign lulls you again into thinking that the climb is done.
In all I counted four of the blind fake summits before hitting the eventual top of the island; about 100m above sea level. At the top I also came across a couple of ‘Sheep Pigs’ in a field by the road. A curious sight these turned out to be Mangalitsa pigs; certainly pigs albeit with a wooly coat like a sheep.
Across the road from the sheep pigs I also spotted another amazing wildlife sight. I had by now ridden roughly 300 miles across the Scottish Highlands and had not seen a single Highland Cow anywhere. I was beginning to doubt their existence. Finally now, on the Orkney Islands and just 5 miles from my destination I found some in a field opposite the pigs. Although I was in a hurry I had to stop to say hello to both sets of animals.
Looking ahead I could very shortly get my glimpse of Kirkwall and the end of my ride. I got my head down and pedalled hard down the hill into the town. I shot in and around the edge heading for the ferry terminal. The ferry leaves from a new pier on the outskirts of the town. I was aware of this but was still a little surprised at just how far out of the centre it is. Having finally got there I locked my bike up by the terminal building; picked up my remaining kit, and started the brisk walk back into the town where I eventually found my other half tapping her feet and looking at her watch. And so it was that my ride was done.
What a fantastic adventure. It might not be a properly documented route unlike my previous trips; but this was still a great journey and one I can heartily recommend.
Day Five Stats:
- Distance: 23.97 Miles
- Ride Time: 1 Hour, 37 minutes and 6 seconds
- Maximum Speed: 37.0 mph
- Average Speed: 14.7 mph
- Ascent: 1,079 feet
- Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/1139570213
- Distance: 304.39 Miles
- Ride Time: 24 Hours, 38 minutes and 15 seconds
- Ascent: 12,381 feet
Upon meeting up in Kirkwall we headed to the excellent Old Library where we had some lunch – a truly fantastic posh Fish Finger Sandwich (by far the best food of the trip) and a celebratory glass of Irn Bru.
After that, still in my cycling gear, we got a bus to Stromness; Orkney’s second biggest town at the western side of the mainland and which I’d not visited on my previous trip here. As we headed over, the heavens started to open with rain of almost biblical proportions. It eased slightly, to being merely torrential by the time we arrived at the end of the bus ride. In Stromness we had a quick walk through town visiting the lovely Pier Arts Centre gallery to see an exhibition related to the excavations at the Ness of Brodgar. With the rain still coming down we headed to get the bus back. The bus terminal is next to the Stromness Ferry Port. We sat in the ferry terminal building for a few minutes; however the Ferry back to Scrabster (by Thurso) was leaving and as it did so we got kicked out of the warm and dry to wait for the bus outdoors. Fortunately we didn’t have too long to wait and were soon back on the move.
The rain was back to biblical again. I was glad now that today’s ride had been cut short. I would not have much fancied cycling in this. Especially as my original plans would have brought me to this end of the island and some of the roads were starting to become impassably flooded. On the bus to Stromness we had met some of the other half’s work colleagues. They were heading the island of Hoy to hike across to an isolated bothy on that remote island. We didn’t fancy much of the prospect of the trek across the island in that weather.
We stayed on the bus at Kirkwall as it carried on back to St Margaret’s Hope and so we were now shooting back along the way that I had come this morning. Hello again Coos; hello again Sheep Pigs. Over the barriers, in numerical order this time; 1, 2, 3 and 4 and back onto South Ronaldsay. We got off the bus at the top of St Margret’s Hope and walked down the hill to our friends house. They were still out at the time but that gave us both a chance to shower and sort our bags for the journey home. Our friends arrived and I got to say hello to them for a couple of hours before they kindly ventured back out in the rain to take us back to the ferry terminal in their car.
The sailing back to Aberdeen was due to leave just before midnight. After a bit of a delay whilst the lovely ferry staff dealt with an aggressive customer, I was soon wheeling the bike onto the ferry to begin the homeward journey. We slept in one of the ferry’s ‘Sleeping Pods’ each; a surprisingly comfortable arrangement and before long we were disembarking in Aberdeen. The train journey home was not as simple as it should have been as useless Virgin trains decided to cancel our train (one of the only direct Aberdeen to London trains) at York. A stressful time at one of my favourite stations followed but I managed to get the bike onto the replacement train. We had to stand the rest of the way home but at least we were headed back and after a few more uneventful hours and two further trains we were back on the South Coast and home.