Apparently it was my idea, though I suspect wine might have been involved! After Tim bought me a bike for our wedding anniversary last year, I at last found a form of exercise I enjoyed, and following a few local rides over the summer, a cycling holiday seemed the next logical step. Orkney appeared to be a good choice as it is relatively flat. (or so I was led to believe!)
We spent several days during the dark and dismal January days that follow Christmas when holidays are planned, with maps spread out on the table, and laptops to hand, searching Google for places to visit and stay on Orkney. We came up with the plan to catch the ferry with our bikes from John O’Groats, to Burwick on mainland Orkney, then spend a couple of weeks cycling round mainland Orkney and the islands of Sanday and Rousay.
Day 1- Northumberland – John O’Groats
The drive up from Northumberland to John O’Groats went smoothly, with a super lunch stop at Killiecrankie Hotel en route. We had booked into The Anchorage bed and breakfast, accommodation being pretty sparse up at John O’Groats, and were delighted with our choice. Gail made us very welcome, and made sure that every need was catered for.
We spent the evening, which was glorious, in warm sunshine, walking around the headland from the lighthouse at Duncansby Head to view the sea stacks. I was thrilled to catch sight of a pair of puffins.
Day 2 John O’Groats to Orkney. Burwick to St Mary’s Holm
After a hearty breakfast, we made our way to the ferry. This is the foot passenger ferry, and bikes can go for free. It’s only a forty minute crossing, though it can be rough with lots of swirling eddies, where the Atlantic meets the North Sea. Fortunately for us, both crossings were good!
Most of the passengers on the ferry were bring met at the other side by a coach for a day trip around the island. We were the only cyclists on the ferry, and we were both really excited to be starting out on an adventure.
As Orkney came into view, the excitement mounted, tinged with a slight feeling of dread – I’m not the fittest or the slimmest! In fact, I’d had to buy my cycling clobber form the website ‘Fat Lad at the Back’. They do a range of cycling gear for the fuller figure, and make a women’s range – ‘Fat Lass at The Back’. It’s great gear, though I wasn’t that happy with having the wording ‘Fat Lass at The Back’ emblazoned on my kit!
I had been promised that Orkney was flat. It depends what your definition of flat it, I suppose. I do not consider Orkney to be flat at all! Holland is flat, Norfolk is flat, Orkney is not! Tim being a more seasoned cyclist and certainly fitter than me, disagreed and said they were merely slopes!
The wind can be fearsome on Orkney – we arrived to a north-easterly wind, and set of in a north-easterly direction with the wind in our faces, which made the cycling hard work! As we travelled round the island the wind changed direction. It buffeted us from the front with every ride. Can you believe, on our homeward leg, in a southerly direction the wind was, yep you’ve guessed, from the south! We had one calm day – that last morning as we cycled back to the ferry at the end of two very windy weeks.
We cycled from Burwick to St Mary’s Holm, over the Churchill Barriers and past the Italian Chapel. We paused at the Fossil museum and took advantage of the café there for a pit stop.
The Churchill Barriers were built by Italian prisoners of war to block Scapa Flow. This natural harbour had been a safe haven for the British fleet until a German U boat sunk the HMS Royal Oak with a loss of 833 lives. There are three Churchill barriers, and these made great cycling, with the blue sea lapping on either side, and wrecks of ships poking out of the water.
The Italian Chapel consists of two Nissen huts, given to the Italian prisoners to decorate following a request for a place of worship. Domenico Chioccetti was the artist responsible for the design of the interior which is simply amazing. The Italian prisoners did all the work on this chapel outside their normal working hours. I found this a very moving experience.
We arrived at St Mary’s Holm well ahead of schedule and found a beautifully sheltered, sunny spot by the harbour. Forty winks were on order following that cycle ride! Our B&B for the night was The Inn Guest House, run by Shona, and we ate that night at The Commodore, which served good honest pub grub, which was wolfed down by two hungry cyclists.
Day 3 – St Mary’s Holm to Kirkwall
We woke early to a beautifully calm bay, with reflections of boats and yachts’ masts in the water. There was not a cloud in the sky. Following a good cooked breakfast, we happily pedalled off in the direction of Kirkwall, taking the small roads wherever possible. We came across a farm some gorgeous curly haired piglets on one of these quiet roads.
We were waved on by the locals who all remarked how unusually good the weather was for Orkney! A detour to Sandi Sand and Taracliff Bay made a wonderful stop. The bay was deserted and beautiful, with a huge sweep of sand and the sunlight glistening off the water. It reminded me a bit of Cornwall, but without the crowds and body boards!
The wind had picked up by now, but we found a sheltered spot amongst the dunes to rest our weary bones for a while.
The road to Kirkwall, past the airport was quite hairy at times with fast traffic, some of which seemed to take no notice of two cyclists, and at one point I was forced off the road by an overtaking car. We made a point after that of always sticking to the little roads wherever possible. There was quite a long hill coming from the airport which nearly finished me!
On arrival in Kirkwall, we left the bikes and went into Judith Glue’s shop and café for a very welcome lunch of delicious rollmop herrings and oatcakes. Throughout our stay in Orkney we ate like kings wherever we went, as the local produce is fabulous.
Over the road, at St Magnus’ Cathedral, thousands of ceramic poppies spilled out of a window. I felt very lucky to have caught Paul Cummins and Tom Piper’s installation’ Weeping Window’
Inside, St Magnus’ Cathedral was a sight to behold. Built 1137 by the Viking, Earl Rognvald, in honour of his uncle St Magnus. It is slightly wonky in places, and has an earthy, rugged charm about it.
We’re big fans of the website, Airbnb and had booked a lot of our Orkney accommodation through it. Annie Glue, daughter of Judith who ran the café, had let out her front room through Airbnb to us for the night. Annie let me soak in a Radox bath as my leg muscles aching. She had even driven down into down to fetch us and our bikes in her van to save us pushing them up Clay Loan, a rather steep hill, to her house. So kind!
Annie was busy preparing her new shop for the grand opening. Annie makes handcrafted knitwear using her knitting machine, which was beautiful, I wish Annie every success in her new venture!
Day 4 Kirkwall to Stromness
We crept out of bed early and left Annie sleeping, and set off for another exciting day. Today was tough! It was incredibly cold and very windy. We paused in a bus shelter at one point to add extra layers and get out of the wind for a bit. I was feeling fit though, and enjoyed the scenery which changed as we went. I have never seen so many primroses and wild flowers – the fields were carpeted by them and wild geese were everywhere. Utterly stunning!
We arrived at Maeshowe slightly earlier than our booked tour, but were welcomed inside to sit in traditional Orkney chairs with a very welcome cup of hot chocolate.
I think Maeshow has to be one of the highlights of the holiday. It is a chambered cairn, built over 5000 years ago to house the dead. Following a crawl along a stone lined passage, you come out into a fantastic four sided space, with recesses in the walls where they believe the bones of the dead were kept. As if this wasn’t exciting enough, the guide shone her torch on loads of Viking runic graffiti. The story goes, that a group of 100 Vikings had got stranded in the snow and spent several days holed up in the tomb, where they carved graffiti into the stone. It was superb!
On the winter solstice, the light from the setting sun passes between the Hills of Hoy and travels right up the entrance tunnel to shine in the tomb, filling a space in the all. You can book tickets to see this sight, or cheat and watch it on You Tube!
We lunched outside on oatcakes and hot smoked salmon (our standard picnic lunch for the next couple of weeks) on a sunny seat out of the wind. Fortified, we made our way a short distance along a spit of land to the Stones of Stenness which rise majestically from the land.
Just up the road is the Ring of Brodgar – the whole of this area being an UNESCO World Heritage site, and it is easy to see why. Thousands of years ago, long before Stonhenge, Neolithic man heaved these great stones into place, that have served the test of time and provide us with an amazing sight unanswered questions as to their purpose.
It was a windy ride, but a stunning one, with the road lined with primroses and is a day I won’t forget in a hurry due to these majestic monuments.
Leaving the stones behind we had a very hard slog up a long hill in extremely strong head winds, but the promise of The Bothy in Stromness kept me going.
What a wonderful find The Bothy was, (thanks to Airbnb again). Hardly a bothy, more like a glorious self contained cottage, which was right on the waterfront overlooking the harbour at Stromness. We’d booked two days here, and I was looking forward to a rest day in this idyllic little house.
Before we retired for the night however, we had one more treat in store, and that was dinner at The Hamnavoe. I’d booked ahead, and was so glad I did. This has to be one of the best meals I have ever had. I’m a huge fan of crab, and the crab au gratin starter was simply divine. Haddock stuffed with crab meat followed, and the ginger and rhubarb pavolva rounded the meal off very nicely indeed! Replete and tired, we headed back down to The Bothy for a wonderful night’s sleep.
Day 5 Stromness
A day off from cycling, and we explored Stromness which is the most wonderful place, steeped in Maritime history. The Hudson Bay Trading Company has its headquarters here, and it was the base for explorers, whalers and adventurers. The little museum at Stromness is well worth a visit and is stuffed full of interesting finds and information about the town and its seafaring history.
The Pier Art Gallery was fascinating, with an exhibition of local artists and craftspeople, and I was especially interested in the knitwear.
The rest of the day was spent, feet up, sitting in the window seats at The Bothy, watching the ships go by and the seals swimming in the harbour.
We took an evening stroll down by the harbour after dining on wonderful Orkney steak, marvelling at the colourful boats in the harbour.
Day 6 – Stomness to Dounby
We were sorry to leave The Bothy and Stromness, and hope very much to return one day. However, the open road was waiting for us, and we were off to Dounby via Skara Brae.
The lady at the museum had recommended a detour to Yesnaby as the wild flowers along the way were stunning, and so they were! The views out to see of the cliffs were also dramatic.
Our plans were thwarted when we arrived at Skara Brae to find a cruise ship was disgorging its passengers by the bus load or rather several bus loads throughout the day. I would be impossible to see the site, and so we pedalled off in search of solitude at the Bay of Skaill.
We pedalled on to Marwick Bay, which was a bird watcher’s paradise – and sat in the shelter of a large rock, backs to the see to eat another lunch of oatcakes and smoked salmon – it’s a tough life!!
Slight panic at Marwick when I realised my phone was missing. Tim valiantly retraced our steps to the Bay of Skaill where he found it sitting on the seat where we had sheltered from the win and phoned the kids at home. Anywhere else, and the phone might have been pinched, but not on Orkney. Crime is practically non-existent, and front doors are rarely locked.
While Tim retraced our steps, or rather wheels, I went on to Dounby where we were booked into the Smithfield Hotel. What joy to discover our room had a large bath – just what was needed!
Day 7 Brough Head and Skara Brae
We cycled north from Dounby in the first rain for a week. Had a quick stop at the Kirbuster Farm Museum which reminded us a lot of our first house at Lanehead! I found the cycling really hard going to day – maybe it was the wind and rain, but I was wishing I’d lost more weight and had done more training! I most certainly was the fat lass at the back today!
We made it to Brough Head, and the tide was out so we could get across the causeway to see the Viking and Pict settlement. With the sea all around, there were some great photos to be had, and I’m now thinking of doing an ‘Orkney Collection’ of jumpers and coats at some point using some of the colours I’ve seen on my travels around Orkney as inspiration.
Skara Brae was much calmer today without the tour buses, and we spent a very pleasant afternoon wandering round this and Skaill House.
Back to Dounby for another soak in the bath and a hearty supper. Despite all the cycling, I don’t think I’ll be losing any weight this holiday!
Day 8 – Dounby – Evie
A day of drizzle and gentle wind – I felt completely wrung out and exhausted. Fortunately there weren’t too many steep hills, though I struggled to get up even the smallest of inclines and had to get off and push twice. So far we have cycled over 100 miles – not bad for a beginner!
We arrived early at Howe Bothy and John let us in. What a glorious find! He’d transformed the bothy from a cow byre, and what a good job he’d one of it. The underfloor heating made it warm and cosy, and the traditional box bed looked divine to a tired cyclist. In fact the following day, Tim remarked that I’d been in bed in the cupboard for over 12 hours!
John is also a fellow upcyclist and both outside and indoors were examples of his art made from recycled metal.
Day 8 – Tim cycles to Rousay
The plan had been to catch the ferry to the island of Rousay, but after struggling yesterday, and with a strong wind, rain and clouds, added to the lie of the land which looked quite hilly, I decided to let Tim go alone to Rousay.
I walked down to the Sands of Evie to take photos, and called in at the local shop for some supplies and to pick up a second hand book, which settled down that afternoon in the Bothy to read. Talking of books, Tim discovered Betty’s room which was just down the road. This is a room full of books with a log burner and settees, and a place anyone can go and read. It was made in the memory of Betty, a special needs teacher who had passed away.
Tim enjoyed his afternoon on Rousay, visiting more ancient remains, although the weather wasn’t the best.
However that evening, the sun came out and we were treated to some marvellous views across to Rousay. John also popped in with some gin and tonic for me which was welcome treat and very kind of him!
Day 9 Evie to Sanday via Kirkwall
John’s kindness carried on the next day, too, offering me a lift to Kirkwall with my bike as he was going there in his van. Another day of strong wind, rain and hills meant I took him up on his kind offer. Tim however, cycled, though he said it was quite tough and doubted I would have managed.
We enjoyed a lunch of Orkney crab and jacket potatoes before catching the ferry to Sanday. There was a strong easterly wind, and I was worried about the sea being too choppy. I needn’t have worried! These ferries are built for stormy seas and the crossing was both smooth and enjoyable.
It was only 6 miles from the ferry to Backascail Bed and Breakfast but this had to be my toughest ride yet! The wind was ferocious and true to form was coming directly from the direction we were cycling in. ‘Is it hailstoning?’ shouted Tim from behind? It wasn’t, but with the strength of the wind, it felt like very sharp rain indeed. The weather was so bad I saw the funny side of it, and battled up and down the hills to our b&b. Jane met us with dry towels and a place to dry our dripping clothes, and a warming cup of tea in her conservatory.
With her husband Geof being a chef, we were in for a treat over the next couple of days as the food was sublime!
The bed, duvet and pillows were so comfy, and I sunk into them gratefully at the end of the day.
Day 10 Exploring Sanday.
We woke to rain, but by the time we had eaten breakfast, the weather had cleared and we set off to explore this beautiful island. In the village of Lady, we popped into the Heritage Centre and looked at the exhibitions. There is a super village shop in too Lady. We cycled past the island’s airport, and loved seeing the painting on the dry stone walls to warm approaching planes.
It was a day of contrasts – strong wind, sometimes behind us, and sometimes in front, torrential rain and gloriously sunny spells. The beaches were fabulous, with turquoise seas and white sand. I would love to spend longer here if the weather was right!
We spent a full day exploring the island by bike, calling in at Kettletoft for a drink at the pub, and to watch the seals basking on the rocks at low tide.
Dinner that night was sea bass and it was sensational! I can thoroughly recommend the Backaskail for good food.
Day 11 Sanday to St Margaret’s Hope
The wind turned round today – our cycle ride took us in a southerly direction back to the ferry port, and guess what? Yep it was a southerly wind! Fortunately the rain had stopped and it was quite a warm wind. We arrived with 15 minutes to spare and caught the ferry back to Kirkwall.
There is quite a hill out of Kirkwall and I had to delve deep to ride it, but ride it I did, and felt all the more proud of myself for doing it. With the southerly wind right in our faces, we rode back over the Churchill barriers. It was amazing to think of all we’d done over the last ten days since we cycled over them on our arrival on the island.
The heavens opened with stair rod rain, and two drowned rats arrived in St Margaret’s Hope at The Creel.
Oh my goodness me, had we saved the best til last? David and his son, William were the perfect hosts. We were greeted warmly, given coffee and shortbread, and shown the menu for the evening meal which David would cook himself. Everything at The Creel was top notch! The wines were fabulous – David suggested he had the finest Italian wines north of Edinburgh and possibly Watford Gap! They were certainly very good. We had a wonderful four course dinner, interrupted halfway through by David brandishing a bottle of champagne to toast Mrs Simpson, one of the other guests, whose 70th birthday it was that day. We thoroughly enjoyed the company of David, William, and the Simpsons.
Over coffee in the lounge, we were treated to one of Orkney’s amazing sunsets. The perfect end to a perfect holiday I thought.
Day 12 St Margaret’s Hope to Northumberland via John O’Groats
Poor David had been woken at 6am that morning to the sight of water cascading though a bedroom ceiling, and which was pouring into his beautiful newly decorated dining room. What a terrible shame! We left them to their disaster and cycled up the hill out of St Margaret’s.
The wind was still! It was also gloriously sunny and even though there was a long hill to climb, I thoroughly enjoyed the last 7 miles back to the Burwick ferry. We were joined on the road by two other cyclists, and the four of us were the only passengers on the ferry back to John O’Groats.
I sat on the ferry with a big smile on my face, feeling vaguely romantic, but with a huge sense of pride of what I had achieved. We’d cycled over 150 miles, seen some amazing things, stayed in some great places, and met some wonderful people. Not bad for a fat lass!
This Woolly Pedlar hopes to do more cycling adventures!