Ancestral cycling

My great-great-grandfather was born in Orkney, gifting me a slender genetic connection to the country I call home, and providing my son with another dose of Viking heritage, which might explain his passion for pirates. I love the wild, raw beauty of the Orkney Islands – it’s unlike anywhere else, but with strong, gusting winds, a temperamental ‘summer’ and almost no cycling infrastructure. It might not be an obvious choice as a family cycling destination. But really, who wants to read another blog about safe and easy cycling holidays in the Netherlands?

Aberdeen and losing the will to move

We started our journey by train from home in East Lothian to Aberdeen, where the nice people at NorthLink ferries let you roll on with your bike and take you to Orkney (or Shetland if you fall asleep) for a surprising small amount of money. Unfortunately this means going to Aberdeen with your bike, which should not be undertaken lightly. I was pretending to be an organised cyclist, so the usual train/bike/booking tension didn’t arise but Aberdeen presents significant mobility challenges to anyone not encased in a metal box. After several attempts to escape the train station, on its island in the sea of traffic, we gave up and spent our two hour wait outside on the station plaza. We decided that it was less damaging to be surrounded by toxic fumes than risk the more imminent danger posed by the cars. My son, a cycle campaigner of few words, provided a summary comment for Twitter:

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Once boarded, it was literally plain sailing and six hours later we were in the “not dark at 11pm” excitement of Kirkwall where I demonstrated my powers of organisation again and had a taxi waiting to whisk us to prepared youth hostel beds.

Weather with you

This was my fourth visit to Orkney so it was obvious to me that the resident weather gods had recently gone AWOL, leaving Orkney to enjoy a rare summer of sunshine and low wind speeds. On previous trips I had wondered how people managed to walk anywhere, let alone cycle, as you have to brace yourself against the wind to stay upright for eight months of the year.  To increase our chances of not being cold, wet and windswept at the same time I’d booked two nights camping and two nights in a wooden chalet at the superb Pickaquoy Campsite plus the initial youth hostel room and a final night on the boat taking us south again. This regular movement maintained the feeling of cycle touring without going very far, and indulged my passion for packing. Posting our tent home after use reduced our luggage and enabled the purchase and carriage of a large quantity of puffin related items home.

Bikes + ferries = simples

Orkney is a collection of 70 islands, 20 inhabited, spread 50 miles from north to south and 10 miles off the mainland of northern Scotland.  You can fly between some of them but for us the boat and bicycle combination was magical, transforming each journey into another part of the adventure.

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Orkney map by Mikenorton – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7876975

We visited two islands, Sanday and Shapinsay, on different days and found they were perfect for family cycling, with low levels of traffic and barely a hill. With very little wind we were able to cover the miles easily, enjoying the wild, open landscape almost alone on the road. The ferries were easy to find, simple to take bikes onto and had adventure written all over them. No booking, no bother. <insert irate comment about bike booking policy on trains here>

We found shops, cafes and a pub for refreshments plus locals that were keen to talk and share their experience of living in this wild, beautiful place. My son chased a male chicken with a new found friend of the same age on Sanday, giving him the ideal opportunity to shout ‘it was a cock!’ repeatedly at dinner later that day.

Mainland manoeuvres

Mainland Orkney, home to 75% of the 21,000 population, proved more of challenge to cycle around than the smaller islands. Cars dominate the two main towns, Kirkwall and Stromness, and the cruise ships provide a regular influx of coaches on the narrow roads. Unlike our part of Scotland (which has a network of low traffic roads in addition to the main roads) the main roads are often the only roads, leaving little choice for finding a family friendly route.

For a small town it’s remarkably hard to cross the road in Kirkwall and quite easy to find yourself surrounded by cars on a road that looks like its pedestrianised. I’m aware that the weather gods decree that walking is an endurance sport for much of the year, but it seems a shame that its isn’t easier to get about this lovely town. There have been plans presented to improve conditions for walking and cycling and I hope that eventually Kirkwall will be able to show off its highlights free from vehicles impeding the views.

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Not separation anxiety

One of the main considerations of the week was how to get ourselves from Kirkwall to Stromness for our ferry south. After canvassing the opinion of everyone we spoke to, including a Dutch born Orkney resident that stopped us in the street to tell us we were ‘very brave’, I decided on the longer, hillier route to avoid as much as possible of the fast and frightening A965*. I rationalised that an exhausted child was better than a squashed one in any circumstances. However, I underestimated the Viking potential and my 6 year old sped through the 18 miles, only concerned that we hadn’t managed to get through many of the snacks we’ve purchased for the journey.

 

Orkney doesn’t have the cycling facilities of the Netherlands, reliable weather or the dramatic mountain scenery that draw so many people to Scotland. But the sense of freedom, of being alone on the edge of the world, sandy beaches with turquoise sea and islands where no one thinks to lock a door – that’s worth coming back on my bike to visit again and again.

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*There is a desire from the Council to provide a separated route on the main road, linking the two towns and providing an excellent opportunity to increase cycle tourism. It would be an expensive undertaking per capita of population, but one that could start to put Orkney and its raw beauty of the cycle tourism map. Ebike facilities and an off road route around the main neolithic sites are also being discussed, and all these could enable Orkney cycle tourism to flourish outwith the main tourist season.

Disclaimer: I did meet several political representatives from Orkney Islands Council whilst on holiday and should declare that they gave me a lovely cup of tea, as well as a fascinating insight into some of the planned cycling developments.

Gods vs. microadventure

My regular readers, all two of you, will notice the distinctive gap in proceedings where some microadventures should be. As a life long organiser I was fairly convinced that I could plan a monthly adventure into this year but, to misquote Woody Allen and several world religions, women plan and the gods laughed. Possibly because they had seen my diary and knew they already had some dates with me:

The Work Gods

The main problem of having a job that you love is that you often can’t tell the difference between work and not work so you end up with many weekends that could be classed as either, depending on who you are justifying the activity to. I reflected on this in March when I ‘worked’ every weekend, spending most Saturday nights at the cutting edge of cycling campaigning with this woman in hotel rooms (see why hotels here) across Scotland in matching #walkcyclevote hoodies.

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The Wet Weather Gods

The Work Gods kept up their interference into April, then handed over to the Wet Weather Gods. The tone was set as I decided not to take the bikes on our planned camping cycling adventure in Ballachulish as the Met Office was indicting a canoe would be more suitable. This was one of the very few photos taken outside for fear of my phone being swept away in the raging torrents water pouring over the west coast of Scotland.

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The Hot Weather Gods

May arrived and I fled with my girlfriends to the heat of Seville. I can never be ‘too hot’ but I do appreciate camping in the extreme heat can have some drawbacks, so the budget was blown on an apartment for our post-We Walk, We Cycle, We Vote drinking cycling expedition to Seville. This adventure into Europe’s poster child for quick urban cycle way development has already spawned a Storify, two different blogs and a proper article so I really don’t need to elaborate further. My only contribution to the documentation of this trip is this photo, showing exactly what happens when wifi is restricted to a small area outside the reception of a hotel inhabited by cycle campaigners just after an election:

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The Gods of Comfort

My husband already tolerates me and (what he perceives as) my quasi-religious love of cycling, so asking him to cycle and camp on his own birthday weekend – my only free weekend in June – seemed abit much. My beloved prefers the finer things in life so to preserve some notion of comfort the duvet was duly packed with our family tent for the less wild alternative to the microadventure – a mini adventure to the Kirk Yetholm campsite in the Scottish Borders. It’s a lovely, quiet site with basic facilities and a great local pub within crawling distance and, based on the two visits we’ve made, the sun is always shining there.

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The microadventure strikes back

I did squeeze an almost microadventure into May, claiming it was ‘work’ to my husband and giving both Sally Hinchcliffe and I something to write about by surrendering my GPS in return for a paper map and compass. Oh, only I didn’t write about it. My lovely new tent, the Vango Banshee 300 if you’re interested, finally got its first outing with my neglected Dawes Galaxy along the backroads of Dumfriesshire. The local roads were gloriously quiet, the D&G CTC crew throw an energetic ceilidh and Scottish summer visited us in all its four day glory, giving me the impression that the gods might have finished giving me a hard time.

 

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This is adventure calling

I’m no stranger to resolutions, a jolly good list and a heavy dose of planning; without these basic tools I’d still be a tired community worker in London, wondering how to get a job in Scotland, instead of living in Dunbar, doing this at work and this in my spare time.

As I’ve gotten older my lists have become more detailed as my brain cells have died off. I can sometimes barely remember conversations unless it was accompanied by a particularly memorable piece of cake. My daily lists have become swollen with email reminders, budgets to re-forecast, funding to chase and reports to write. Necessary, practical and focused on *channelling Bob the Builder* getting the job done. Ditto on the home front with childcare arrangements, holidays and household finances.

My lists haven’t always been so utilitarian. As a carefree singleton in 2005, with two of my oldest friends, I started a yearly ‘self-development’ list containing 10 ambitions each for the year ahead. Or something less pompous. In October each year we’d gather together for the weekend and report progress, or lack thereof. Over the seven years we documented I managed to move to Scotland, go to Italian classes, do a sea kayaking course, learn to like (some) fish and finish a Salman Rushdie novel – but I failed to learn anything about Scottish history, run, make an item of clothing or get arrested. Our annual celebration of resolution through the combined challenges of home-schooling (conducted by one friend), and the continual reorganisation of the probabtion service (affilicting the other friend), faultered in 2011 when my son arrived earlier than expected, putting everything but action necessary to sustain life on hold for around a year. My ambitions in 2012 and 2013 were to drink hot tea, go to the bathroom on my own and sleep for more than an hour at a time.

So now 2017 is looking right at me, and I’m sleeping for around four undisturbed hours at a time, I’m feeling a new list coming on. In pre-pregnancy years I cycled in Cuba, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and India, took a road trip from Vancouver to San Francisco and got to Arran, Cape Wrath, Orkney, Skye and Applecross. Not adventures by some people’s standards but not bad when you’re trying to hold down a full-time job, finish an MA and not get married to various people.

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Now gainful employment, a school age child and a husband who is terribly fond of gardening are preventing exotic or prolonged adventures for a while yet, so I’m going to jump on a crowded bandwagon – the microadventure.

I’m more than fashionably late to the whole microadventure business, or the cycle-specific version Bike Overnights, but like any late adopter I’m going to make up for timing with enthusiasm.  I’m planning 12 overnight adventures in 12 months as suggested by the king of adventure Alastair Humphreys and the first one has been booked for the end of this month just 10 miles from home. Judging by the excitement of camping in our friend’s garden last year, I’m expecting more smiles than miles cycled.

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