ORKNEY DIARY PART THREE: THE SOUTH
John Campbell cycles to the end and back.
DAY 4 – MONDAY
Time and tide could get stuffed this morning – I enjoyed a lie in until l seven.
Setting off along the A960, all was rural and completely deserted – that's what I call a Monday rush hour. It got better views to south of the islands of Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay laid out in front of me, though they are technically no longer islands, having been joined to the mainland by the Churchill Barriers.
Prior to crossing Barrier No.1, an intricately carved totem pole bizarrely stands proud with carvings of crab, seal and puffin; a reminder that island men had relationships with Cree women when they were employed by the Hudson Bay Company in Canada in the 18th and 19th Century.
CHURCHILL AND CHIOCCETTI
Having anticipated it for months, I finally pedalled onto a Churchill barrier.
In October 1939 HMS Royal Oak was sunk in Scapa Flow when U-boat U-47 sneaked through the Kirk Sound, supposedly blocked by sunken ships. 833 lives were lost.Churchill demanded barriers be built as a matter of urgency. Balfour Beatty were commissioned to carry it out with the majority of labour provided by Italian POWs. Amongst them was painter Domenico Chiocchetti.
With morale understandably low their priest, Father Giacobazzi, told the Officer in charge, that the POWs needed a church. Two Nissan huts were connected magically transformed into the Italian Chapel; it has become Orkney’s most visited tourist attraction.
Iron walls were disguised with panelling made from plaster board. Chiocchetti made clay altar pillars and rails; scraped-clean cans of bully beef became candle-holders. Most of all, Domenico transformed the interior with his breathtaking artwork, his masterpiece being the Madonna and the child. Until his death in 1999 he would often return. A memorial requiem mass was held in the chapel, the congregation including his wife and three children.
NEVER HURRY A BURRAY
Taking time to stare at rusting wreckage and sandy beaches among the Holms of Lamb and Glimps, I drifted over the penultimate barrier onto Burray, taking an immediate right, up hill on a charming little road with magical vistas towards the Orkney Mainland.
I'd come off the main A961 which runs down the spine of the 'barrier' to visit Hunda, an uninhabited island connected to Burray by a causeway Churchill cannot lay claim to, this one created by nature. I'd seen Hunda in the news; up for sale at £600,000, an adjacent six bedroomed farmhouse on Burray thrown in. The seals, fresh air and amazing views are free.
Relaxing for an age on the shore, eating and drinking my way through the supplies bought from the cheery assistant at the well-stocked store, I tried in vain to find traces in the structure of the Sands Hotel of its prior use as a warehouse for curing and packing herring.
Joined to Burray by No.4 on the Churchill list is South Ronaldsay, the largest and last of the islands linked by the barriers.
Arriving at the outskirts of the Island's main settlement St. Margaret's Hope, which is a pleasing gathering of houses overlooking a sheltered bay, the red and white ferry, in the livery of Pentland Ferries, looked totally out of place moored just beyond the houses.
OLAD IS 360 AND LOOKING GOOD
Three-quarters of the way down the island is the highest point – Olad Summit. 360 degree panoramic views of the day's cycle so far, the islands of Flotta, Hoy and the mainland's of Orkney and mainland Scotland all clearly visible.
I headed down to the pier at Burwick – the end of the line. I'd ran out of land, the dead-end feeling of the place palpable, the only movement detected coming from a few workmen involved in the restoration of the church across the bay and Dave, from Sussex, re-spraying the door of his V-reg Riveria camper-van.
Turns out 35 years ago he'd taken a flight to Istanbul then spent ten weeks cycling home, the journey summed up in his own words; “I lived on £3 a day for the whole ten weeks and burnt to buggery I was”
BIRDS, BEER AND AN ICE CREAM
Tomb of the Eagles – a stone age cairn discovered and excavated by local farmer Ronald Simison, is, if truth be told, nothing overly exciting on it's own. However, add to the mix the story, the hands-on exhibits, the first class staff, the intoxicating windswept cliffs, the possibility of a bronze age brewery, a vintage German ambulance, it convinced me, upon leaving, I had a received excellent recompense for my seven mile cycle from St. Margaret's Hope.
The actual tomb of the Eagles is a cairn perched above the cliffs, so-nameda because it contained an astonishing hoard of sea eagle bones and talons, not yet found elsewhere in Orkney. Probably uniquely, access to the tomb is by means of a wheeled board and pulley system. You lie on the board and pull the rope above you along the narrow gap before entering a single long corridor with small rooms off it. I hummed the Great Escape tune on the way in.
Returning to the visitors centre (via a different cliff side walk - one full of seals, nesting birds, wild flowers and a gale force wind) I drank hot chocolate and ate Orkney ice cream (to die for) from the shop, studied the Mesolithic exhibition room -much of the information about the land around here, now lost beneath the waves.
FRONT, BACK AND SQUARE AT THE HOPE
The no-nonsense-naming policy prevalent in Kirkwall is duplicated in St. Margaret's Hope, or The Hope, as the locals refer to it. I flew down the tidy gradient into the village on Back Street, had a nosey along the conservation area of Front Street and then entered The Square, past a huge propeller perhaps washed ashore as there is long history of flooding in The Hope, with records of floods in 1914, 1953, 1980s, 1990s, January 2005 and December 2013.
In The Square is the William Hourston Smiddy Museum. Fortunately for me my timing coincided with its afternoons only opening hours as I spent an engrossing hour in the place, much of it spent with the curator.
I learned of the floods; giant bellows; harpoons and whaling; bird harvesting; the ways of the blacksmith, village life in the Hope, where it seems nearly every child on South Ronaldsay has a horse or a pony – indeed 23 of the 29 pupils in her daughters class have one!
My farewell came with a recommendation and directions to head up the hill, and the subsequent three miles to Hoxa Head, passing the Sands of Wright where a ritual unique to this Island takes place.
The Festival of the Horse and Boys' ploughing match takes place on the Sands, a procession leaving from the Hope, the boys in outfits akin to a badly dressed Morris Dancer masquerading as an American Indian, or vice versa, and the girls dressed up to resemble horses. It all culminates in a sand ploughing competition.
The road leading away from the Sands had the most testing climb and the strangest sight I'd encountered by far that day. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs lined the road, greeting me on my quest for the summit. My very own Disney Corner on Alpe D'Huez de Ronaldsay.
ASSAULT AND BATTERY AT HOXA HEAD
Hoxa Head commands the southern entrance to Scapa Flow. co A brief walk from the Hoxa tea room took me to the best example of coastal defence batteries I'd seen in Orkney, including engine rooms, observation points, watch shelters and 6 inch gun emplacements.
OLD AGE NEW AGE
At the last count South Ronaldsay's 19 square miles had a population of 909 but I reckon I may have found two of it's happiest inhabitants, living the dream on their own terms, which was £7 per tent, per night.
Two miles above The Hope is Wheems camp site run by the delightful Christine and Mike: in the twilight of their youth and unashamedly hippy in both looks and outlook, -the tour of the bins, each with their own recyclable uses and purposes taking longer than the tour of the showers, rudimentary kitchen and laundry area.
My pitch overlooked the sea and two of the many horses on the island shared the adjacent field. Peace and goodwill was plentiful, man, as was the award winning Stromness Dark Smoked cheese. And, apart from the short ride to the ferry, that was the end of my time on Orkney.
PENTLAND FERRIES – ST. MARGARETS HOPE TO GILLS BAY
Enquiries 01856 832 226
Booking line 0800 688 8998
Journey time 1 hour
I booked and paid for my ticket via the website for £15.00. Bike goes FREE.
Wheems Camp site -Privately run by Mike and Christine. £7.00 per tent per night. Bewildering, but free game of which recyclable bin to use is free.
Burray and St. Margaret's Hope, plus several tea-rooms and cafes - most opf which john seems to have used.
PUBLISHED MAY 2016