Monday, 15 December 2014

Getting outdoors (at last)

March started with high spring tides. In fact I’ve never seen the wreck of the B98 so far away from the water. With the anniversary of the outbreak of WW1 looming, there’s been an increase in local interest of the island’s wartime history. It included the heritage centre borrowing of some of my recently acquired reference material, a piece of which has been donated to the centre for display.
Lopness farm through the wreckage of B98
When I heard that the ranger was in the process of purchasing a scale model of the B98, I assumed that he had managed to track down a better one than my 1:700 scale resin one, which given that the real thing was 98m long, even a modest ability in maths would tell you that the model measures a mere 14 centimetres. It turns out, however, that he’d bought exactly the same one. If it goes on display, I hope that they position it under a magnifying glass. At least it was constructed by an experienced modeller. I haven’t dared to try making mine. Whether the heritage committee has also managed to get hold of any of the supposed many ‘salvaged’ parts that have been collected by islanders, allegedly, over the years to complete the display awaits to be seen.

Not a popular holiday destination, I'll grant you.
With the tides being so revealing, I decided that it was an ideal opportunity to try to make a dash for the beacon at the tip of the Riv Skerry. I packed an emergency overnight kit just in case I managed to get out there to find that the returning tide had made the way back impossible. I was quite prepared to stay there, wrapped in a silver blanket and tucked up with a good book and a hot drink until the waters receded once more. As it turns out, the rocky path was untraversable and part of it was still actually submerged beneath the briny. I returned home a little disappointed but, admittedly, mightily relieved. Gail was pleased to see me too, primarily because I promised to cook dinner for us both if I made it back.

One of the problems facing bus drivers in remote locations is communication. Gail may have two mobile phones but they are hardly ever switched on as reception is so bad. In order to improve the accessibility of the Sanday service, the company has kindly fitted a signal booster here at the shed. Talk about making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear! Before it was fitted, if we had wanted to send or receive text messages, we had to attach a mobile (ein Handy) to our clothes-line pole and poke in out through an open window. With the booster turned on, the phone goes all the way from no bars at all, (not even a flicker), to a full five bars and ne’er wavers. It’s uncanny just how effective the kit is. Of course it has to go off in the evening. Try as we may to inform folk that we are not on duty twenty four hours a day, there’ll always be someone that decides, just before they go to bed, that they need a lift to the pier the morn.

Ice on the dunes. My definition of the word 'juxtaposition'.
It is still far too early in the year for the weather to be settled, if indeed it ever is. On driving to the North end the other day, I noticed that the dunes at Cata were an unusual colour. On closer inspection the culprit turned out to be a layer of hail. Yet again, it would have to be one of those days when I’d left home without a camera, so I had to get home, grab one and head back out again, much to the amusement of the lady of the house. It wasn’t thawing in any kind of a hurry so I managed to snap a few shots before the risk of exposure forced me back into the warm car. At low tide, it’s possible to drive over the shallow beach. I have been on the island long enough to hear of the plenty of tales of stranded vehicles and decided that a closer inspection was not necessary for the purpose of this narrative.

This handsome chap deserved better
One of our ranger’s responsibilities is to monitor sea pollution and to that end he conducts regular beached-bird surveys on the island. Toward the end of month, he advertised for some assistance in covering Bay of Lopness. It’s a long, gently sloping coast so the inter-tidal, or littoral, zone is rather wide for a single person to cover. In the end there were four of us, scanning the whole beach for washed up dead animals. Rod insists that the quality of the water has very much improved over the years of his residency, so he was very much hoping that we’d find nothing. He was to be disappointed however on this occasion. An animal washed ashore is often a free meal for someone else. By the time we find them, most of the remains are stripped bare, a couple of wings and assorted bones. In addition, a stiff breeze had been drifting the sand all day and I was ‘lucky’ to spy a feather tip poking up out of it all. I managed to dig up a whole, fresh gannet, most likely the injured one that Rod and I had tried to rescue a few days earlier. The remains are tossed up onto the dunes to ensure the bodies are not recorded again in the future.

Boloquoy Mill
Eventually, the longer days started to encourage the next generation of flora and fauna. In their hollows in the dunes, the seagulls laid their eggs and wild flowers exploded from the grasses. It was also an ideal time to be out and about. The days were long and warm, out of the wind, and nobody had bothered to tell those annoying flies that were to plague us during Summer and Autumn. Rod the ranger held a walk out from Mill Geo to Boloquoy, along a cliff-top path of rocky coastline to the West that is in stark contrast to the shallow, sandy bays of the Eastern side of the island. It offers a roost to a myriad of seabirds and some dramatic vistas. It ended at the old mill at Boloquoy, now redundant. Formerly a grinding (until the stones were sold to another island) and latterly a threshing mill, it is an icon of the island’s past. There is still a pond and evidence of a channel to bring the water to a large wheel on the outside of the Western wall. Inside, a rusting collection of old fittings continue to lamentably rot.

Never expected to see the pitons from Duncansby!
Far from your average Nissen hut.
June started with plan to get back onto the British mainland. A friend from the old gig was taking part in a charity bike ride all the way from Land’s End to John O’Groats. This mind-boggling accomplishment required some kind of welcoming committee and as the only guy within hundreds of miles, I wanted to be there. They had been on the road for the better part of a fortnight. I just had to set out the day before. I cycled from home to Loth Pier, got on the boat to Kirkwall, then cycled South. Before the wars I would have had to catch another three peedie boats to get to Burwick on South Ronaldsay. Now I just had to ride across the Churchill Barriers instead. I ran out of daylight at St. Margaret’s Hope, where I availed myself of a waiting room that remained unlocked overnight. Thankfully, the night was short as the bench seats were really uncomfortable. I set out early in the hope that the waiting room at Burwick for the John O’Groats ferry would be nicer. When I got there, though, it wasn’t even open. Cue me standing around and my body temperature dropping like a stone. The ferry was great, despite being really narrow and the Pentland Firth being is usual, choppy self. I had plenty of time to spare before Zara and Richard were due to arrive. Enough to get to see Duncansby Head, though it nearly killed me. The geography was up and down. Exhausting to pedal up and a white-knuckle freefall descent with the brakes screaming like a banshee. The views were spectacular, though. I rode back into John O’Groats with the hero pair, took pictures of them beneath the sign and introduced them to Orkney beer. My bad. I was very happy when they managed to cadge a lift on board a coach heading back to civilization. My return journey North involved Orca’s in the Pentland Firth, photos of and in the Italian Chapel and another night in a ferry waiting room, this time in Kirkwall. Hurrah for padded seats!

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