Sunday, 30 December 2007

Shetland Sojourn III

Our last day in the islands. We pack, feed ourselves and the gull, tidy up and haul all the gear into the car, bidding a fond farewell to our temporary home.

North-east this time, to Vidlin, Delting and Lunning, the Whalsay ferry terminal (no otters this time – but no ferry around) and an almost Scandinavian landscape of painted wooden houses and boats on the firths. The weather has improved, which bodes well for our trip back to Aberdeen tonight.

Shetland sheep come in a variety of colours….

Heading down the coast we stop to check out the seals on the rocks north of Gletness, and spot something else in the water – another otter! It catches an eel, and hauls out onto the rocks to eat it, but the distance- and the activity of the otter – make the photos awkward. We miss the otter, but do manage to catch a few seals, basking like sausages on the smallest of rocks.

We have lunch (very nice, highly recommended if you are ever there!) back at the Shetland Museum, with no need of lamp-posts this time. It’s a beautiful place, very new, nicely laid out, and covering all aspects of the islands’ history.

There are some weird art installations, too. The one on the left is Mum….

Time for a bit of shopping in the Lerwick rush hour – warm woolly Shetland knit hats from Jamieson’s, and some bits from the Shetland Soap Company.

There is just time to take a few twilight pictures before we are due to check in at the ferry terminal. Clickimin Broch lies close to the heart of town, an ancient tower-dwelling in the heart of modern housing, beside the leisure centre and within sight of the supermarket.

The ferry to Bressay runs back and forth all day, taking commuters to and from homes on the neighbouring island and Lerwick. It’s time for us to catch our own ferry.

Well, I say ‘time’ but after check in we have to wait almost an hour while the heavy goods containers are loaded (I have to wonder why they don’t get these aboard in advance of the passenger load!) and we eventually find ourselves driving aboard down a narrow canyon between container wagons. It feels rather risky, a view that isn’t helped as the ‘Norröna’ ferry (Bergen to Tórshavn) limps into Lerwick, having managed to hole itself on a stabliser, the hold cargo shifting so that a container fell onto some cars, (flat!)and a total of 80 cars damaged….

Fortunately, we have no such drama, and spend a comfortable night. We arrive back in Aberdeen at about 7.00 am, the lights of the city coming up rapidly along to starboard. It’s still too early, so we take a short trip up to Torry Battery to watch the dawn come up, before finally heading down to Tracey’s for breakfast, and to sort out all the heap of gear in the car.

Shetland Sojourn II

Sunday morning found our visitor back, looking for breakfast. It’s not easy eating porridge under that watchful eye……

South today, all the way down to Sumburgh. The main airport for Shetland is set in a low-lying, soggy and sandy flatland below the rise of Sumburgh Head. To reach the very south of the island, you have to drive across the end of one of the runways – interesting. Especially when a plane comes over your head…
The airport electronics also had a weird effect on the car – fortunately we were stopped at the time – the engine cut out, the trip meter reset itself…baffled, we paused at Grutness, where the ferry to Fair Isle departs (and there are some fond memories there!), in a squall. The locals didn’t seem too impressed with the weather either…..

No further interruptions to the running of the car, and we head up towards the lighthouse. The car park is below the lighthouse itself, with a clear drop to the sea just over the wall. The sea is rough, snow squalls are followed by bursts of bright sunshine, and the wind harries the fulmars and gannets along at a great rate.

The lighthouse, in spring and autumn, is a wonderful place to see migrating birds and the seabird cities that fill the cliffs of the Head, but in winter, there is little around and we head north again, via the dune lochs of Virkie and Spiggie, the mill at Quendale (shut for the winter) and the western coastal route to St Ninian’s Isle. The island is joined to Mainland by a tombolo – a thin sand spit caused by tide and current. The waves run along the sandbar, breaking tops white and misty, whipped by the wind.

We stop for lunch near Maywick, and look up from divvying up the sandwiches to see a wall of whiteness coming up the road towards us; in a moment we are engulfed in a hailstorm, pellets of ice bouncing off the bonnet of the car and hammering on the roof until we can barely hear. Moments later it has gone as fast as it came, heading southwards. The old line is true – ‘if you don’t like the weather, wait a couple of minutes and it’ll change.’

We spend the afternoon investigating the small, causeway-linked islands of Burra, and the end of today’s trip takes us to Scalloway, the second town of Shetland, home of the maritime college and the wartime ‘Shetland Bus.’

The light is fading fast, and we head back to Lerwick.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Shetland Sojourn I

Saturday morning we scraped the snow off the car, and headed north, to the top left-hand corner of Shetland Mainland, to Eshaness, where the geology meets the sea. Literally. Here the sea has cut through the flank of an ancient volcano, different types of lava flow stacked up like a layer cake, a cross section of an explosive past. There are gas bubbles, ash and volcanic bombs, the fine grained flows of runny lavas, the blobby agglomerations of the stickier stuff. Different hardnesses of rock give way to the sea at different speeds – in places the cliffs are like giant’s staircases, in others, arches and needles rise from the Atlantic rollers like the teeth of a fossilised monster.

The power of the sea is evident. Rocks lie along the cliff-top, thrown up by storm and tide, to be swept off by other waves reaching 40 metres above the sea, and the waters offshore are littered with wrecks. Yet people have lived here for many thousands of years, their presence recorded in the stone age cairns, Pictish brochs and in the remnants of pre-clearance villages.

The wind is bitter. As I step from the car to take photos, my eyes immediately stream, and the cold slices into my bones. It’s not a day to hang around.

Eshaness Lighthouse – now a private house (lucky people!) – is one of the few that has a square tower. It stands foursquare against the wind and weather, staring out across the Atlantic. I snapped the picture and dived back into the warmth of the car.

We head back towards Sullom Voe, where the tankers discharge and fill their tanks with the oil from the hostile fields in the seas between Shetland and Norway. It’s actually not that imposing – the Flotta terminal in Orkney is more obvious, and the St Fergus terminal at home, with its huge flares of burning gas, more dramatic. Nearby is Mavis Grind (pronounced, I think, with a short ‘i’) which is designated the shortest distance between the Atlantic and the North Sea - a mere stone’s throw (if you have a small stone and a very strong arm!) We head to the northern ferry terminal at Toft, where the inter-island ferries head out to the low-lying, peat-covered island of Yell. No, we’re not going to Yell, but there is purpose in our trip.

Years ago, on Fetlar, we were chatting with a local gentleman about the likelihood of seeing otters. Go to the ferry terminals, he said, it’s almost guaranteed – they like the disturbed water where the ferries come and go, it stirs up the fish.

He was right, as we’ve discovered on numerous occasions since that conversation.

We sat and ate our sandwiches, watching the ferry load up and the seabirds go back and forth. Ferry terminals are also a good place to find well-maintained public toilets, so we took advantage, and I was just getting back into the car, when Mum noticed a disturbance offshore.

Binoculars snap to attention, and with delight we spot two otters, fishing in the bay. They roll around each other, diving and splashing, and then separate. They are some distance off the beach, but I take a picture anyway - honest, this IS an otter! While we watch, it catches a butterfish and, gripping it firmly between its paws, happily chomps it in front of us.

The light is fading rapidly – twilight comes at around 3 p.m. - so we head back towards our base, and our warm and cosy apartment.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Northern Exposure

So how on Earth did we come to be lugging drainpipe and old curtains to Shetland, and why was Mum wrapped around a lamp-post in Lerwick?


Some time ago, I won a ferry ride for two plus car to Shetland, through a prize draw associated with the annual Beach Clean-up. (Thanks to Northlink Ferries and the East Grampian Coastal Partnership) Yippee! Mum and I hadn’t been to Shetland for years, so it was a really nice treat…the only caveat on this enterprise being that the trip had to be taken before March 2008. Given our winter weather, it seemed vaguely sensible to take it sooner rather than later, and as my friend Tracey was heading up that way to deliver a teacher training course on school grounds (something we’re both involved in) it made a kind of sense to tie it in and give her a hand. So we booked a self-catering apartment in Lerwick, and all three of us headed north in early November, the car laden down with all the gear for the course (this is where the drainpipe and curtains comes in).

Now I have to say, the weather in November isn’t always kind. We’d been watching the forecast for several days before we went, and it was holding true to form, so we were quite relieved that the Wednesday ferry was scheduled to sail as normal. We duly checked in and boarded, and soon found our cabins. It’s a reassuringly large ferry, very clean and polished, with friendly staff, and is very comfortable; the trip takes around 12 hours overnight, so we headed for the restaurant for dinner, before the trip really began.

We watched the lights of Aberdeen fade behind us, went over the details of the course we were delivering in the morning, and, as the ship began to rock and roll in the worsening weather, headed for our cabins.

There’s a very good reason why the bunks on our old friend ‘Leader’ run fore and aft. In a bunk that runs from side to side, (as on the ferry), as the ship rolls, you slide. First towards your head, and then towards your feet. Gentle rolling from side to side is OK, sliding up and down until your head hits the bulkhead is less entertaining. Sleep was a long time coming…..

Overnight the weather got gradually worse. As daylight broke through the window on Thursday morning, we were relieved to see the island of Bressay, and a choppy sea in the approaches to Lerwick harbour.

We rolled thankfully ashore, and went to sight out the terrain – we couldn’t get into the apartment until lunchtime (Mum’s task, to check in and set up camp) and Tracey and I were due to be at school until about 3 pm. So we unloaded our cargo of drainpipes, curtains and other stuff at school, dropped Mum down at the centre of town and went back to work. As the day went on, we saw the weather deteriorate rapidly as blizzards whipped through, and the walls of the school hut we were in flexed dramatically. We had to reduce the amount of actual outdoor activity we were originally planning, in case we lost a teacher or two over the nearest horizon. The southbound ferry was cancelled, all the inter-island ferries tied up, and Shetland battened down in the teeth of a storm-force wind.

Meanwhile, Mum had discovered the local museum , and had spent a happy couple of hours wandering around. On emerging, she found waves breaking over the seafront, and by the time she got to the road, had to cling desperately to a lamp-post to prevent herself being blown over. Fortunately, a nice local lady (thank you whoever you are!) in a 4x4 stopped, rescued her, and gave her a lift to the apartment, where we all met up later, to swap tales of wind and weather.

I can thoroughly recommend the place we stayed. Warm, comfortable, and with all the bits and pieces we needed. Plus a nosy neighbour, who visited each day to see if we had any spare food.

On Friday, Tracey and I went back to school to deliver another day’s training, followed by her departure – on the fortunately reinstated ferry – back to Aberdeen, family, and the joys of moving house. Mum and I stayed on over the weekend to rediscover Shetland, which will be the subject of the next entry in this blog.

Watch this space.

Splashing About

Well....there are those who wanted to see what I was painting down at the RSPB reserve.....

the idea is that it's what you might see out of the window at that time of year, (including underwater) the picture done so far being winter. (Summer is to be done in the depths of this winter.... hmm...will this make me feel warmer when I'm doing it?)

Anyway, here it is - a patchwork version of the whole thing, and a couple of 'highlights'...

this is the bit to the right that you can't see..


Saturday, 8 December 2007

Slow Boat Under Birmingham

The canal network stretches throughout the heart of England, and used to carry much of the country’s goods. After years of neglect, enthusiasts have managed to restore much of the system, and it now carries a different cargo – holidaymakers. Amongst whom, this summer, were a motley collection – Mum, Brother, the Temporary Dog, the Temporary Dog’s real owner, and your humble correspondent. One week, four people, a singularly unenthusiastic dog, 95 miles, 93 locks, and one lost foot of height.

bargedog, but not by choice....

With a canal holiday, you book the boat, take food, and plan your route day by day, aiming for a reasonably accessible pub in which to spend the evening. Fortunately this is not hard! You can’t go fast – around 4 miles an hour (partly to protect the banks from erosion, and partly to prevent the poor souls in boats that are tied up from being thrown around too much!) Locks take around the same time as a mile of travel, so you calculate in ‘lockmiles’. Going through a lock is an interesting procedure – and can be a little Edgar Allen Poe-ish….

On Being Locked Up.

Half-ton gates slam behind me. Dank, slime-covered stones rise above my head, mosses and liverworts dripping coldly down my neck as I turn to see what’s coming.
Somewhere above me, there is a clanking as hidden doors are opened; water starts gushing into the narrow chamber. I am thrown forward and backwards by the torrent, fighting to hold my position and stop myself being hurled against the gates by the water’s force.
I rise on the flood to the top of the chamber, into sunshine now, and engage forward gear. The gates ahead open - we’re clear of the lock.

You get the picture?

Ryder's Junction

The boat is easy-ish to handle – you have to remember it’s around 60 feet long and turns like a brick, and although it has a very shallow draught, sometimes the canal is even shallower….OK, we got stuck a few times, and had to resort to pushing off with a long pole, but that’s why they give you a long pole in the first place! There were some stretches of canal that were better kept than others, too – navigation by means of avoiding sofas, shopping trolleys and children’s bicycles – and I hereby warn all those who venture onto the waterways to avoid the Wyreley and Essington (otherwise known as the Curley Wyreley) unless you have a particular fondness for stopping every half mile to unload the weed hatch….. a singularly unpleasant business where one halts the boat, vanishes under the rear deck-plates, unscrews the hatch lock, and goes headfirst down the subsequent hole with one’s arms in freezing water, groping around the propeller to disentangle a variety of substances, from weed to rope to angler’s line to plastic herons and thorny twigs……

Other stretches were pure delight, with kingfishers, wagtails, and shoals of fish darting amongst the weeds, and it was a simple joy to hang over the side and watch the world drift past below your fingertips, interrupted only to note what new bank vegetation the current helmsperson had just dragged you through!

So why pick on Birmingham?

In truth, it was the revelation of the trip. There are more miles of canals in Birmingham than in Venice, and waterways thread their way through the heart of the city, looping around, though and under the buildings.

It is a very weird feeling to be climbing through a series of locks that lie beneath a building under construction, or to sail past a restaurant that lies between locks – knowing that on the up-lock side, the restaurant wall holds back millions of gallons of water…

There are odd places down there, under the city. Urban mythology lies in wait. Under the Telecom tower, beside the canal, there is a wide area of gravel, beyond which is a wall, with a series of openings. Each opening has a gate of wrought iron, each with a different design. It’s not hard for the imagination to see these as holding pens for trolls, or as merchants’ market stances, waiting for the late night secret market where rare, dangerous, and esoteric items are bought and sold…..

To rise from a series of locks into a narrow gap between buildings, windowless faces staring blankly high above your head, to find a vast, colourful mural depicting the history of the canals in the city – just for your delight – is a reassurance that there are still people to there who understand the fun of the unexpected and unnecessary. At night you tie up (for free!) in the heart of the city, not far from the Indoor Arena, in the upmarket waterfront yuppie-zone, adjacent to pubs, clubs and café-culture.

Then the following morning you set off and find yourself somewhere under Spaghetti Junction, in an alternate – maybe parallel – world where there are thundering juggernauts overhead, and slow, peaceful waterways below, and below that, a river or a forgotten road.

Fishermen know these places, and keep them to themselves. Locking-down, you suddenly realise that the sheet of metal to the side of the lock and towpath is a motorway sign. An aqueduct carries you along beside the M6. Do the drivers, rushing to work, caught up in the frenzy of meetings and time-keeping, ever notice the slow-boat-people?

And the lost foot of height? Well, I did the research afterwards, and found we'd gone UP 309 feet in height, and DOWN 310 feet.... so am I now living a foot below everyone else?

Thanks again to my brother for some of the photos...

Mea culpa

I know - I've been remiss. Much of the year has gone by without comment..... well, actually, I made quite a few comments, but many of them were the same as last year (albeit greyer and wetter), so it seemed daft to re-blog them. That, and being up to the proverbial ears at work. Which is why it's been so quiet around here.

With any luck, and a following wind, I hope to update things in the next few days.

But don't hold your breath!